CIRCA:Manovich, Lev. "What is New Media?" in "The Language of New Media"

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Manovich, Lev. (2002). "What is New Media?" In "The Language of New Media" (43-74). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. [1]

Reviewed by Colette Leung

In the chapter, “What is New Media?” of his book “The Language of New Media,” (2002) Lev Manovich argues that multimedia and new media highlight an immediately occurring shift in cultural language and communication, more profound than any previous such as generated by the printing press or photography, because all media is being transformed into computer-mediated forms.

Manovich supports this argument by claiming that to understand this shift, we must understand what it is that makes new media “new,” and thus the history and definition of new media must be explored. This definition includes five principles, ”not laws but rather […] general tendencies of a culture undergoing computerization.” (49). These principles are: numerical representation which states that new media objects exist as digital code or data (49); modularity which explains that the different elements of new media exist independently (51); automation which explains that new media objects can be created and modified automatically without the input of humans (53); variability which states that new media objects exist in different, perhaps infinite, versions (56); and the most important, transcoding or to translate media into different forms, which suggests that the computer is not only affected by how we understand it, but that it influences how we understand and represent ourselves (63). Further, Manovich suggests that some principles that are often attributed to new media aren’t enough to understand new media. These include the idea that new media is not continuous or digitally encoded, that it can be played on one multimedia machine, that it allows random access, that it can be lost because it contains a fixed amount of information, that it can be copied endlessly without degradation, and that it is interactive (66). All of these principles cannot demonstrate a shift, as they can all be attributed to cinema. Manovich also demonstrates that new media allows us “to externalize the mind” (74) as we can trace someone’s mental structure with new media. Thus it affects all areas of communication (output and input), which makes new media the advent of a true cultural shift.

Manovich’s purpose is to provide a meticulous definition of new media, in order to provide a common ground and understanding upon which others can build theories and their own understanding of new media. He provides a starting point well illustrated with analogies from film theory, history, literary theory and computer science, which appeal to many disciplines. He establishes an authoritative relationship with his audience of interdisciplinary academics, those in the field of computers and digitization, as well as any who are interested in the relations of culture and technology, by providing the layout of the land for others to understand new media, and by providing a language for use when discussing issues.

Moreover, Manovich continually returns to this theme of a “culture undergoing computerization” (49), the idea that there is a “cultural layer” and a “computer layer” (63) that influence each other. Manovich explicitly states this relationship of culture and computers in the context of new media and multimedia, a relationship between the arts and the digital, making this work of interest to our discipline. By setting this theme in the text, Manovich marks his writing as important to discussions of humanities computing, and sets it apart from other work that neglect the exploration of this relationship in new media and multimedia; a relationship that is at the core of Humanities Computing.

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