What is New Media?

In this excerpt from Lev Manovich’s “The Language of New Media” (2001), we learn from a historical and technical perspective what, exactly, is this notion of “new media” that classes like our own Introduction to Interactive Media are concerned with.

Manovich first asserts that new media is the result of “the convergence of two separate historical trajectories: computing and media technologies” (44). Interestingly, the beginnings of these histories start in the same decade (the 1830s) with two famous inventions: Babbage’s Analytical Engine (a computing technology) and Daguerre’s daguerrotype (a media technology). Throughout the reading, Manovich continues to use these two technological categories to show that they were (and are) both crucial for a modern and informed understanding of new media.

In regards to the issue of defining/describing new media, Manovich specifies five key characteristics (principles) of new media, which I detail below briefly:

(1) Numerical Representation

New media objects are able to be represented in numbers, for they made up of digital code; consequently, they can be a) “described formally (mathematically)” and b) “subject[s] to algorithmic manipulation” (49).

(2) Modularity

Manovich notes that this characteristic can be considered the “fractal structure of new media,” for in the same way that a fractal (computer-generated art) is constituted by the same type of structure throughout, new media also is composed consistently of the same structure. Examples of these structures include pixels, characters, etc. How I think of it is like this: humans are composed of cells in the same way a new media object (like an image) is composed of a media element (like pixels). An example of a fractal is below.

(3) Automation

New media include some level of automation, such as the way that programs like Photoshop can make certain automatic corrections to pictures. Other examples include animation programs that automatically generate certain items/objects as well as word processing programs (as well as others) which can automatically create certain features (such as a document’s layout). (pg. 53)

(4) Variability

New media objects should be able to “exist in different, potentially infinite, versions” instead of being entities that are stable/unchanging. One simple example of variability in new media is the way in which websites utilize user information to customize what the user sees, perpetually creating variants of the website.

(5) Transcoding

This principle of new media was a bit more difficult for me to understand, but from what I gather it refers to the way that new media is composed of two layers: a cultural layer and a computer layer. The computer layer is the workings of the computer — the computer language and data structure, etc., while the cultural layer is how the user interprets what they receive from the computer — a short story, a point of view, etc. Naturally, the two layers affect each other constantly, and in particular the computer layer is affecting the cultural layer in the way users interpret cultural data, etc. (pgs. 63-64)

Lastly, I will quickly mention one thing I found interesting in Manovich’s discussion of what new media is not: in regards to the notion of interactivity, he believes that the term is too broad. He explains that lots of “old media” was interactive — it was just not physically interactive, meaning that users did not actually press a button, touch something, etc. Rather, there is such a thing as psychological interaction, in that users must “fill in” things with their minds, and thus for a long time art (and other things) have been interactive. I really like this notion of psychological interactivity and wonder how I might incorporate it into later projects of mine in this class.