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The Language of New Media

Author: Lev Manovich
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London, UK: MIT Press, 2001
Review Published: August 2001

 REVIEW 1: Katie Mondloch
 REVIEW 2: Bryan Alexander

That Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media is a risk-taking and stimulating contribution to the discourse surrounding new media is evident even before page one [*]. The book's prologue consists of short extracts indicating Manovich's central premises that will be fleshed out in the text. As short polemical notes, the quotations serve to engender argument as well as energize, performing the new thinking hinted at in Manovich's remarkable treatment of new media. By the time Manovich has thanked the various Internet mailing lists where he regularly shared excerpts of his text prior to its publication, and the hardware he used when writing The Language of New Media, the reader is attentive to the original way in which Manovich intends to deal with his vast subject.

Just what are new media? Manovich defines this early on -- "Web sites, virtual worlds, virtual reality (VR), multimedia, computer games, interactive installations, computer animation, digital video, cinema, and human-computer interfaces" (8-9) [1]. What, then, is new media's "language"? By language, Manovich intends both the logic of new media's aesthetic and the discourse that surrounds it. Grounding his analysis in showing how new media appropriate old forms and conventions of different art and communications media, the majority of Manovich's book, chapters 1-5, consider the influence of cinema's language on new media while the final chapter, chapter 6, deals with the inverse. (The link to cinema should not be over-stated however, as Manovich never fails to include other relevant precedents and art forms.)

Inspired by the early written accounts of cinema, Manovich aims to record the development of the language of new media at the time of its formation -- in other words our current moment. The contribution of this book to the literature already available on related topics is the author's wide-ranging expertise and intellectual rigor. (Currently Associate Professor in the Visual Arts Department at UC San Diego, Manovich holds advanced degrees in cognitive psychology and visual culture and has been working with computer media for almost twenty years as an artist, designer, animator, computer programmer, and teacher.) In assessing new media objects (his term), their technologies, and their style, Manovich is always mindful of how social, economic and cultural considerations inform and are informed by the very technologies and styles which they consider. Manovich studiously avoids generalizations by asking what is different between more recent technologies and those preceding them; fortunately he does not hesitate to frequently conclude "not much."

Interactivity has been a tortured term and concept in critical theorizations of new media. Manovich encapsulates the problematic: "when we use the concept of 'interactive media' exclusively in relation to computer-based media, there is the danger that we will interpret 'interaction' literally, equating it with physical interaction between a user and a media object (pressing a button, choosing a link, moving the body), at the expense of psychological interaction. The psychological processes of filling-in, hypothesis formation, recall, and identification, which are required for us to comprehend any text or image at all, are mistakenly identified with an objectively existing structure of interactive links" (57). While this formulation may appear to be commonsensical, it is debatable whether the current use (some may say abuse) of the term interactivity privileges the physical over the psychological. It is more important to note how the two are necessarily intertwined in our epistemological encounter with new media objects. Manovich nevertheless hopes to preserve the term, helpfully and convincingly distinguishing between "open" and "closed" interactivity. "Open" interactivity occurs when "both the elements and the structure of the whole object are either modified or generated on the fly in response to the user's interaction with a program," whereas "closed interactivity . . . uses fixed elements arrangedin a fixed branching structure"(40).

If adopted, Manovich's careful and precise terminology could allow for more rigorous discussions of interactivity. The author's conception of the human computer interface (HCI) is likewise a much-needed clarification of the user's relationship to new media objects. As the term human computer interface itself suggests, the HCI essentially describes the ways in which the user interacts with the computer -- Manovich builds from this notion to include the input and output devices used in the interaction, the metaphors used to conceptualize the organization of computer data, and the ways of manipulating that data (69). This expanded notion of the HCI is significant in that it foregrounds the importance of the distressingly under-theorized point of reception distinguishing our interaction with new media objects.

By now, the truisms of our digital age may seem unshakeable. How often have we heard (hoped?) that digital representations are unable to offer the complexity of analog ones? Or that digital image and sound files are able to be reproduced ad infinium as indistinguishable and perfect duplicates? Manovich is quick to point out that both of these conceptions are true in theory but unlikely in practice. The resolution available in pixel-based digital images is already more detailed than that of any traditional photograph. Furthermore, the routine compression of digital audio-visual files (lossy compression) means that details are edited out to save space so that copies are routinely degraded in practice. (Those of us who have experimented with Napster undoubtedly understand the difference between perfect digital copies in theory vs. practice, copyright issues notwithstanding.) It is all too often over-looked in the digital discourse (both utopic and dystopic strands) that digital images as they are used today do not constitute a radical break from the current technologies of vision and the Cartesian space of Renaissance painting. (This is not to say that nothing changed with the advent of new media. Manovich locates the paradigm shift instead with interactive 3-D computer graphics and computer animation, highlighting the significance of the fact that since about 1980 computers have been capable of generating (moving) images of non-existent worlds.)

The Language of New Media meaningfully links the computer industry's obsession with illusionism, the trend toward increasingly realistic representations in computer imaging, to a similar trend in painting and photography of the same era -- roughly the late 1970s to early 1980s. Photography's 19th century intrusion into painting's traditional duty of documenting reality served to reinvigorate painting by relieving it from the burden of representation. Although it is too soon to know what film, photography or painting's futures will be in the face of increasing computer illusionism, Manovich urges his reader to recognize that "synthetic computer-generated imagery is not an inferior representation of our reality, but a realistic representation of a different reality" (202). The fact that digital images are superior to human and camera vision (at least prior to their compression) means that they offer a different, not contradictory, reality.

The history of the quest for "realism" in the case of new media is a quest for a cinematographic or photographic realism, highly defined by our modern experience of interpreting the cultural forms offered by the camera as reality. Manovich elucidates: "What computer graphics have (almost) achieved is not realism, but rather only photorealism -- the ability not to fake our perceptual and bodily experience of reality but only its photographic image" (200). Put another way, the only reason we can say (or fear) that images of reality can be simulated is that we accept photography and film as reality.

These observations become slightly more disturbing when grounded in practical examples. The Language of New Media clearly documents how the twofold interests of the Pentagon and Hollywood have historically set the standards for developing certain aspects of computer imaging realism over others, sponsoring efforts to perfect representations of landscapes and moving figures. Of course new media "realism," like those attempts preceding it, is partial and uneven; what Manovich provokes us to question is who is setting the terms for what gets prioritized as "reality." After all, the much-lauded freedom to create our own personal worlds with new media, whether on our computer desktops or in our experiences of virtual reality, is in fact radically limited by pre-defined alternatives. Manovich puts in plain words: "While a hundred years ago, the user of a Kodak camera was asked merely to push a button, she still had the freedom to point the camera at everything. Now, 'You push a button, we do the rest' has become 'You push the button, we create your world'" (197).

It has become commonplace to note that the viewer has developed into an interactive user with the advent of new media and Manovich is careful to take this into account. He also notes that "as we work with software and use the operations embedded in it, these operations become part of how we understand ourselves, others, and the world" (118). Withthis understanding, the practice of teleaction that allows the user to change reality from a distance in real time is designated as a true paradigm shift (169). An often sited example of teleaction is the ability to fire targeted missiles during the Gulf War without being present at the site. What is missing from Manovich's account is a consideration of the computer itself as active. The author constructs his argument as if "control" is always the prerogative of the subject and fails to consider the consequences of the computer or other new media devices acting on us. What are the real effects when the HCI serves as a surveillance mechanism, or employs teleaction to affect real situations in real time? The propensity of commercial Web sites to track the visitors' subsequent movements only hints at the possibility of new media surveillance in what Gilles Deleuze has called our society of control. A recent New York Times article reports that Britain's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act extended police phone-tapping privileges to the Internet. Well-aware of the economic gains possible in further developing such technologies, IBM's Project Eliza is devoted to reducing the need for human action in computing by developing computers and networking products that would adjust to changing workloads, recognize faults and repair themselves without human intervention [2].

Manovich expertly bridges many disciplines, selecting among theories of art, film, literature, and computer science. This versatility proves especially fruitful in Manovich's interpretation of how ideology functions in the era of new media. By having to periodically take an active role and participate in the interactive text in order to complete it, the subject is interpolated in it. Manovich takes this a step further and suggests that the oscillation between moments of interactivity and illusion in our experiences with new media can be understood as a structural feature of contemporary society. Divergent from the functioning of ideology during modernity, complete and seamless illusion is neither required nor desired in our current moment. The self-critique, disbelief, and "revelation of the machinery," that used to function as oppositional strategies are now expected and tolerated in interactive media just as they are in other social realms from politics to advertising, emptied of their critical capacity. All of this occurs while the knowledgeable subject knows precisely what is going on and goes along with it all the same. Theorized by Manovich, "The user invests in the illusion precisely because she is given control over it" (209). This formulation is a complex and useful way to consider contemporary new media objects and their discourse while retaining a historical specificity and critical context. While not claiming to have an infallible solution, Manovich hints at an alternative to this situation later in the text when he champions new media work that does not rely on the oscillation between noninteractive and interactive segments.

Throughout The Language of New Media, Manovich calls for the aestheticization of information processing, although it's not entirely clear what this means for art as opposed to design. Manovich distinctly separates the two in Chapter Two. Distinguishing new media design from new media art, Manovich ventures a definition of the latter: "the choice of a particular interface is motivated by a work's content to such a degree that it can no longer be thought of as a separate level. Content and interface merge into one entity, and can no longer be taken apart" (67) [3]. The two fields are merged however as Manovich posits that the database should be considered a symbolic cultural form of its own (219). Throughout Chapter 5, "The Forms," Manovich encourages the designers of these databases and "navigable spaces" to learn from the histories of modern architecture (built and paper), modern art, and installation. Whether or not this call is intended to inspire artists, software designers, or both is not in the end as important as why Manovich (or the rest of us) feel compelled to distinguish between the two in the first place. To answer this question would be to truly tackle the quandaries posed by new media.

Overall this provocative and intelligent book will doubtlessly prove indispensable to anyone interested in new media and its critical theorizations. Readers from expert to novice will almost certainly be thankful for Manovich's studious attention to definitions, both those commonly (mis)used and those coined by the author. Each chapter concludes with compelling case studies that serve to define and elaborate the theories advanced. That said, the only drawback to this text is its circuitous organization. While it could be praised for the fact that one could read the chapters at random and not miss out on the major themes presented in the text (a curious enactment of hypertext and interactivity), it is not clear how the chapters work collectively. Reading the book from beginning to end is highly repetitive, although this is perhaps the best way of being assured that you find the gems embedded in Manovich's argument.

It is hard to over-estimate the importance of The Language of New Media to the field of the same name as it is the first rigorous and far-reaching theorization of the subject. Manovich writes, "I wanted to create trajectories through the space of cultural history that would pass through new media, thus grounding it in what came before" (285) -- we are fortunate that he met this goal expertly in his book The Language of New Media.

* A slightly different version of this review first appeared in CAA.Reviews in summer 2001.

1. It is worth noting that there is no general consensus on the definition of "new media" or of "new media art(s)." Manovich's definition is a good start in that it locates the concerns of new media as operating in and around a range of disciplines and aesthetic traditions, but in practice the term remains problematic. The flaw of such a definition is paradoxically its comprehensive nature; more often than not in writing about so-called new media, critics (including Manovich) employ precise examples to support theoretical statements that become unsustainable when applied to all the variant forms that fit the definition of "new media."

2. Both references are from The New York Times, April 26 and 27th, 2001, respectively.

3. It is ironic that Manovich is so diligent about problematizing the links between entertainment, military interests, art, and new media (277) even while encouraging continued overlap by proposing that commercial designers mine avant-garde critical and aesthetic strategies. It is hard to believe that Manovich would hope to see the legacy of the 20th century avant-garde carried out in commercial software design.

Katie Mondloch:
Katie Mondloch is a doctoral student of contemporary art at UCLA. Her research centers on the intersection of new media arts and critical theory.  <mondloch@ucla.edu>

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