Topic-Specific Discussion of Phenomenology in The Language of New Media

Numerical Representation – First Principle of New Media

See page 27 in The Language of New Media

The First Principle of New Media identified in The Language of New Media is that the resulting objects of new media practices “are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations.”

When we look at a picture of the Mona Lisa on a computer screen, we do not consciously perceive digital code or numerical representations; there is an implicit phenomenological distinction being drawn between two descriptive categories: the operation of the computer (how information behaves within a computer as a formal system), and the conscious perceptions of a person interacting with a new media object through a computer interface (we see “new media objects” rather than digital code or numerical representations).

While these two descriptive categories refer to the same physical behavior (what, in a given instance, a person might be doing with a computer), they also require different vocabularies to adequately describe precisely what physical processes are involved and how these processes affect us. In the case of a person doing something with a computer, these vocabularies differ in terms of “how” something might be happening, agree on “that” which might be happening, and converge on “why” certain events result.

The First Principle of New Media elects to analyze the resulting objects of new media practices in terms of how information behaves within a computer as a mechanistic formal system. The assumption here is that analyzing new media in such a way will lead to a more fundamental or profound account of new media, compared to a study of what people do with new media; the desire behind such an assumption is often a belief that a more fundamental account of a phenomenon might be understood as objectively grounding subsequent inferences about observations of relevant phenomena — in this case, that phenomenon being new media objects.

Contemporary computers are formal machines designed to provide a syntactical specification for a set of formal symbols, the rule-governed means to manipulate these symbols, and the physical means to express these symbols using arbitrarily distinct formal systems.

The information stored on a computer is stored in a symbolic form, and numbers are just one possible way to represent these symbols. A loose analogy can be drawn with natural languages: when we have something in mind that we would like to express, we may write it down on paper so that it is expressed as chemical pigments and light waves, or we may speak it aloud so that it is expressed as air molecules and sound waves. If we say something aloud, it would not be correct to assume that the spoken expression is more or less fundamental than its written equivalent; if we want to understand natural language communication, it would not be correct to privilege the spoken word over the written word, or to focus strictly on how words exist in minds before they are communicated to others.

When we talk about information stored in a computer, we frequently talk about binary code being composed of 1′s and 0′s; the fact that we use the Arabic numerals “1″ and “0″ to represent this code is simply a matter of convention. TRUE and FALSE or ON and OFF work just as well as 1 and 0; the convention we use has little effect on how the stored information is structured so long as the convention allows exactly two states in binary opposition.

It is certainly possible to treat all the 1′s and 0′s involved in storing a software application on a computer (along with all the plain-language text unique to that software application, such as online documentation) as a single integer, represented by a very large base-2 number. However, the same 1′s and 0′s can also be viewed equivalently as instructing the computer hardware to move bits of information from one place to another; or, those 1′s and 0′s can be viewed as truth-value assertions in a long expression of Boolean logic.

In his essay, “The Practical Logic of Computer Work,” Philip E. Agre asserts that:

“The design of a computer begins with formalization — an intensive and highly skilled type of work on language. A computer is, in an important sense, a machine that we build so that we can talk about it; it is successful if its operation can be narrated using a certain vocabulary. As the machine is set to running, we too easily overlook the complicated reflexive relationship between the designer and user on which the narratibility of the machine’s operation depends. The corpus of language that was transformed in producing the machine, like any discourse or text, is necessarily embedded in an institutional and historical context, and the machine itself must therefore be understood as being, in some sense, a text.”

To describe a computer program as a long expression in Boolean logic shouldn’t be counter-intuitive: computer programs are, after all, written in artifical “programming languages.”

This means that computers are just as much logic machines as they are arithmetic machines. That the information computers store can be represented numerically is very much incidental to how the stored information is structured, and is neither a fundamental nor an axiomatic observation about how computers behave.

Why we so often talk about computers as though they are arithmetic machines (or fancy calculators) is in large part a matter of what sorts of patterns we are culturally taught to be sensitive to. A modern city-dweller well-acquainted with the cycles of the business day and traffic laws might easily see patterns in a contemporary cityscape which a farmer from 1800 might have to struggle to perceive. We are taught a good deal of arithmetic in public schools, but very little formal logic; we are furthermore taught science in the tradition of a Platonic-Pythagorean conception of nature, which holds abstract constructs to be the most fundamental description of the world. Since we know science gave us computers, why wouldn’t arithmetic therefore appear to be essential to the most fundamental description of what computers do?

Given, however, that computers are just as much logic machines as arithmetic machines, it is not at all self-evident why the numerical features of computerized information storage should be privileged in an analysis of how practical computers behave.

Furthermore, it is not unique to new media objects that they originate in a numerical form: musical notation, too, can be viewed mathematically, as can the design of architecture (or the motion of planets for that matter). In fact, the information contents of practical computers are hardly unique in their ability to be described mathematically, and their ability to be described mathematically is hardly fundamental to their operation. It is therefore just as problematic to describe computers as arithmetic machines as it is to describe the arithmetic features of new media objects as characteristic of new media.

It is perhaps more relevant to discuss contemporary computers in terms of the relative convenience with which they allow us to perform sophisticated manipulations of symbolic information.

The Database and Narrative Form

See page 218 in The Language of New Media

“After the novel, and subsequently cinema, privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate — the database.  Many new media objects do not tell stories; they do not have a beginning or end; in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally, or otherwise that would organize their elements into a sequence.  Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other.”

In his efforts to distinguish new media from traditional media, Manovich posits a distinction between narrative and the database.  This distinction serves to illustrate a conception of art history that understands the prevailing mode of cultural expression primarily in terms of what technological capabilities are available for use.  Implicit in this conception of art history is a sequential progression of media forms, wherein the book leads to cinema, which in turn leads to the computer; the computer, being most recent, is therefore more advanced or complex than cinema or the novel.  Additionally, this distinction overtly connects the novel with linearity, to make the novel a representative of traditional media generally; simultaneously, the database is connected to non-linearity and taken as a representative form of the new media.  The manner in which this argument is constructed, however, creates a number of problems.

For example: the choice to oppose traditional forms to the database is in many respects arbitrary.  Manovich’s choice to associate the novel with linearity as a means to signify the properties of traditional media glosses over common traditional forms for which this association is meaningless.  It makes no sense to discuss a painting or a photograph in terms of the linearity Manovich attributes to narrative — even though a picture can tell a story worth a thousand words.  Neither does it make sense to discuss a single painting or photograph as a database — especially if the image is visually abstract, and therefore not amenable to description as a collection of distinct objects.  Even if Manovich’s account of literary works is taken at face value, novels such as Finnegan’s Wake can be understood as organizaed towards a depth of referentiality rather than anything linear or narrative; the same holds for poetry.

Furthermore, Manovich’s definition of the database is profoundly unclear.  After describing the database as a collection “of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other,” Manovich provides contradictory details further down the same page.  If, for example, a database can be “organized into hierarchical classes,” it follows that, if two elements are located at different levels of the hierarchy, they by definition possess a different sort of significance (even though an interface may render this hierarchy transparent to a user).

Finally, Manovich does not here take into account that a user of a database may well experience the database as a sequence of events — though the beginning and end points of that sequence may well be arbitrary.  When a user accesses an electronic encyclopedia, for example, he or she does not experience the whole collection at once: a user might begin with what seems like a reasonable starting point, and make numerous attempts to more narrowly focus his or her investigation of some subject matter.

Like any printed reference text, such as a dictionary or a thesaurus, an electronic encyclopedia may be experienced in an arbitrary order, and it is the careful tailoring of individual sentences into a logical sequence that gives the text its meaning — not whether those sentences are bound in an alphabetized book or stored on a CD-ROM.  A video game too may be stored as a database on disc, but may only have meaning in virtue of the sequence in which a user accesses different parts of that database.  The designer of a database often enough provides a means by which users can access the database in a structured, sequential, manner.

Omitting a discussion of this structuring of experience results in something like trying to describe a novel in terms of the properties of the alphabet.