On Why New Media is New, But Also Kinda Old, and Everything In Between

(Response to The Language of New Media by Lev Manovich)

The sections of Manovich’s book that we were assigned attempt to define new media in technological, cultural, social, and historical ways. His chapters pack a lot of information about the concept, not only for the sake of definition but also to lay out what he thinks are the characteristics of new media, to validate or debunk commonly-held beliefs about it, to provide examples of new media by developers, artists, etc. and to trace the history of new media within the context of media in general.

It is this last aspect of the book that struck me the most. It often feels that Manovich wants to deal with too many faces of new media at once, a notion that I possibly have because I don’t fully understand all that he explains, but a common thread throughout the sections is his desire to tie new media back to its antecedents, and through this show how the new technologies and interactions that it encompasses did not come out of the blue. Manovich does this from the start, by bringing Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine and J.M. Jacquard’s loom into the conversation, and continues to do so until the end, when he mentions Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting among others.

I find that the “timeline” given by Manovich makes the development of new media more interesting, especially given that the book was published in 2001, and as a 2017 reader I can fill it in with new information. Understanding the many dimensions of new media, where it takes its influences from, and how it adapts them in different ways, makes the concept seem much richer, complex, and valuable than just a vague term to describe “what computers do.”