Response: Led Manovich’s “The Language of New Media”

In “The Language of New Media”, Led Manovich discusses what constitutes new media, defining elements that distinguish it from the old, traditional media, while establishing connections between new media technologies and shifts in culture and society. In the first half of his book, he elaborates on the principles of new media, defining aspects such as numerical representation, variability, automation, modularity, and transcoding. After defining such terms, he explores the relation between new media and society, and the way they have mutually influenced each other. 

What is New Media?

The following are the ways I understand the elements that constitute new media:

  • Numerical representation: new media can be essentially stripped down into discrete numbers. Examples of such components are the the pixels, time frames, etc. in a film or image, which ultimately constitute a film and other new media objects. Numerical representation also allows new media objects to be changed and edited through algorithms, which means they are also programmable.
  • Modularity: allows for numerical representation. All new media technologies have, ultimately, the “same modular structure throughout”,  which allows them to be accessed and edited easily (51). Ex: webpages are made up of many different media elements: text, images, video, etc.
  • Automation: certain programs, such as Photoshop and other image editing programs have a certain level of automation, which allows them to complete certain actions without a large input from the user. Ex: automatic correction of images.
  • Variability: mutability. Variability of new media allows for many different versions of the same medium. It can be stored in a media database, and altered or influenced according to the user’s input. For instance, variability is present in an interactive media installation where the piece shifts according to a person’s movement. Variability also includes scalability, which allows for more complex interactions.
  • Transcoding: the action of changing something into another format. This is the shift between the “cultural layer” and the “computer layer”, which both influence each other. (Note: cultural layer – story, plot, composition, etc. computer layer – process, variables, functions, etc.)

The Interface

One of the most interesting aspects that Manovich explores is the way changes in media technologies correlate with social change. In traditional, industrial society, huge generalizations were made on populations, and it was largely believed that everyone was supposed to have the same goods and beliefs. Following this general line of thought, media was meant for the masses with no regards to individuality or uniqueness. This trend explains how most media was copied exactly and produced and distributed to everyone as a way of enhancing this uniformity. However, once society started shifting more towards a culture that rejected conformity, media started changing according to the individual. An example of this is the way websites change according to one’s search history and actions on the web to customize the ads, images, or search options presented to each person.

These trends explored by Manovich also introduce one of his main discussions regarding the language of cultural interfaces. As was demonstrated earlier, an essential part of new media is the “desire to externalize and objectify the mind’s operations” (74). As a way of reflecting societal and cultural factors, interfaces have always tried to imitate the mind’s workings through different methods. A perfect example of this is hyperlinking. By linking certain words or images to other related webpages, interfaces attempt to imitate the mental process of associating certain objects with larger themes, memories, or emotions. However, this process also brings to question the restrictions of new media in respect to its users mental work and processing. If web pages and other forms of media are populated with links that lead to an already established structure, what does this mean for us? Aren’t we just following a path somebody else set out while being tricked into thinking that we were the ones who made that association? Through so many hyperlinks and access to information, aren’t we being distracted from our original goal or purpose in being in that website? Or rather, is our experience enhanced due to the availability of so much information? These are some of the questions that Manovich brings up on this reading, which really invite reflection on the relationship between culture and media. Another essential aspect Manovich brings to light is the way cultural forms such as cinema, printed word, and human-computer interface are so present in all aspects that they offer different ways to create, visualize, and organize data. In this same light, are we active participants in this wave of transformation, or rather, are we being carried away by the changes fostered by these cultural media forms?