Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media.
Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2000.
Most scholars of modern media now agree that the shift of symbolic representation
to a global digital information network is as systemic and pervasive
a mutation, and as fraught with consequences for culture, as the
shift from manuscript to print. Anyone who wants to think clearly
about the cultural implications of the digital mutation should read
Lev Manovich's new book, The Language of New Media.
This book offers the most rigorous definition to date of new digital
media; it places its object of attention within the most suggestive
and broad-ranging media history since Marshall McLuhan's; finally, by
showing how software takes us beyond the constraints of any
particular media substrate--paper, screen, tape, film, etc.--this
book overcomes the media framework indexed by its own title.
The Language of New Media leads its reader to confront
what is strange yet familiar, that is, uncanny, about the
computable culture we have begun to inhabit.
Before characterizing Manovich in greater detail, it is helpful to say what this
book is not. Pragmatically focused upon the present contours of
media, Lev Manovich is neither a prophet nor a doomsayer, peddling neither a
utopian manifesto nor dystopian warnings. Manovich also eschews the conceptual
purity of those cultural critics who set out to show how new digital media
realize the program of Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida
(insert your favorite theorist). Like many raised in the former Soviet Union,
Manovich seems inoculated against any explicit aesthetic, conceptual, or political
ideology. Instead, Manovich practices a catholicity founded in negative
capability: if an art practice or popular media culture has flourished, it is
part of the picture, and the critic and historian of media must find a way to
account for it. This helps to explain the remarkable scope of Manovich's book as it
ranges easily from analysis of the software/hardware/network infrastructure that
supports new media practice to the synthetic efforts to explain what new media
is; from contemporary artistic practice to aesthetic theory; from popular media
culture to advanced media theory; in short, from the Frankfurt School and Dziga
Vertov to the GUI (Graphical User Interface) and Doom.
Defining New Media
What makes new digital media different from old media? Many early
answers--discrete versus continuous information, digital versus
analog media--founder upon closer inspection. A host of scholars and
critics have approached this question from various vantage
points: the history of technical culture (Jay David Bolter),
hypertext (George Landow), narrative (Janet Murray), architecture
(William J. Mitchell), virtual reality (Michael Heim), theatre
(Brenda Laurel), and so on.
From these books there has emerged a
series of general traits ascribed to new media. Here are a few: new
computer-based media are described as procedural, participatory, and
spatial (Murray); discrete, conventional, finite, and isolated
(Bolter); liquid (Mitchell); productive of virtuality (N. Katherine
Hayles, Heim) or of cyberspace (William Gibson). While these traits and
terms have cogency within particular analyses, the attempt to
generalize their use brings diminishing returns. Thus Manovich
argues that a favorite term to characterize new
media--"interactive"--is simply too broad and vague to be critically
useful. It not only fails to account for the variety and specificity
of new media, the term also tendentiously implies that old media are
fundamentally non-interactive. For example, isn't it part of the
critical point of various kinds of modernism to make its audience
"interact" with the art object (56)?
Trying to isolate the essential traits of new media repeatedly courts two
complementary problems: one may overplay the novelty and difference of new media
by ascribing to it traits in fact found in old media (so, for example, random
access to packets of data is as old as the codex); or, by restricting attention
to the aesthetic or phenomenological effects of new media products, for example
by comparing "e-literature" and print literature as formal artifacts (cf. J.
Hillis Miller on "the Digital Blake"), one may fail to come to terms with the
difference made by what lies at the heart of new media--a computer running
software. The sheer familiarity of the personal computer may have encouraged
cultural critics to treat the cultural products of the computer (word processing
documents, cinema with digital special effects, hypertext) as nothing more than
old media enhanced by the flexibility and transportability of digital code and a
global network. Thus, in Cybertext, Espen Aarseth has shown how
literary theorists who interpret new media genres like hypertext or computer
games have reduced them to conceptual terms--like labyrinth, game, and world--that
annul the difference for textuality of a computer operating in the background and
doing calculations (8, 75). Manovich's first response to this dilemma is to
develop a list of the five intrinsic principles of new media, a cluster of terms
that specify the techniques and operations of a computer running software and
suggest how an old media sphere is being "transcoded."
Here is a rather bald restatement of Manovich's five intrinsic principles of new
media. First, through numerical representation, a new object can be
described formally (mathematically) and subject to algorithmic manipulation: "in
short, media becomes programmable" (27). Second, new media objects have
modularity at the level of representation and at the level of
new media objects such as a digital film or a web page are composed from an
assemblage of elements--images, sounds, shapes, or behaviors--that sustain their
separate identity and can be operated upon separately, without rendering the rest
of the assemblage unusable. In an analogous fashion, modular programming speeds
the development and maintenance of large-scale software (31). Third, numerical
coding and modularity "allow for the automation of many operations involved
in media creation, manipulation, and access" (32). From the earliest use of
computers to target weapons at high speed, to web pages generated on the fly, to
intelligent agents that sift and retrieve information, automation achieves speed
that is the fulcrum of computer "power." Fourth, while old media depended upon
an original construction of an object that could then be exactly reproduced (for
example, as a printed book or photograph), new media are characterized by
variability. Thus, browsers and word processors allow users defined
databases allow selective search-sensitive views; web pages can be customized to
the user. The variability of new media allows for branching-type interactivity,
periodic updates, and scalability as to size or detail (37-38). Finally, new
media find themselves at the center of the "transcoding" between the layers of
the computer and the layers of culture (46). In new-media lingo, to "transcode
something is to translate it into another format" (47). Manovich makes the strong
claim that the "computerization of culture gradually accomplishes similar
transcoding in relation to all cultural categories and subjects" (47). By using
the term "transcoding," Manovich acknowledges the distance between computer and
culture, even as that distance is often dissimulated. Thus, as Manovich explains,
the "cultural layers" of a new media object (like Microsoft's
Encarta) might be as familiar as an encyclopedia, but its "computer
layers" are process and packet, sorting and matching, function and variable (46).
These admittedly cumbersome five principles don't seek to specify the
computer/software in itself, nor do they characterize the specific media forms it
makes possible (like hypertext, computer games, jpegs, web pages, etc). Instead,
these five principles characterize that zone between and across which the
transport between computer and culture is happening. These five principles offer
a commonsense way to specify the capacities and tendencies of that new "universal
media machine," the computer running software: computers use numerical
representation and modularity so as to automate functions and offer variability
within the media objects that are produced and sustained by them (69). These four
tendencies of computer-based media help to win its broader cultural effect, a
"transcoding" between computer and culture, so we begin to inhabit the new forms
of a computable culture. These general tendencies of a computer running software
are what Manovich explores in the rest of the book, a trajectory of analysis that
implicitly offers a second answer to the question "what is new media?" While
several influential books have sought to embed the computer in the history of
media (Bolter and Grusin's Remediation, Borgmann's Holding on
to Reality, and Levinson's The Soft Edge), Manovich insists
that if one is to take account of the full scope of the new media, one must take
account of their different "levels." He begins at the most basic level with the
"operating system" and the human-computer interface, taking account of the
inheritance from print and cinema, the salience of the screen, and the body of
the user (chapter 2). Moving up to the level of the software applications,
Manovich offers broad cultural interpretations of operations like "selection,"
"compositing," and "teleaction" (chapter 3). At the level of user experience,
Manovich turns to the "illusions" created by computer-based image making:
"synthetic realism" or virtual reality (chapter 4). At the level of new
computable media genres, Manovich reads the "database" and "navigable space" as
rivals and alternatives to the previously hegemonic cultural form, "narrative"
(chapter 5). And finally, Manovich traces the dislocations worked by new media
upon what he calls the dominant medium of the 20th century, cinema (chapter 6).
- Manovich's multi-layered topology of new media does not really claim conceptual comprehensiveness: surely new
"layers" could be discerned between his layers. Nor does he attempt completeness at the level of media types; hypertext, which
plays a large part of the critical survey of new media told by Landow and Aarseth and others writing out of literary studies,
plays a rather small role in this book. Manovich's book of new media draws its methodological rigor from Russian formalism and
from the technique of doing a topology. However, that does not mean we have to accept the empiricist anti-idealist assumptions
of that approach. One doesn't have to take this multi-leveled approach to new media literally--as though Manovich has suddenly
taken the blindfold from the eyes of critics groping around the elephant of new media--to appreciate the fruitfulness of this
approach. Manovich's topology of new media is based on a self-conscious analogy to the conventional "levels" of the computer
hardware and software (from microprocessor through operating system to high-level application). But this analogy works because
it allows him to "touch" upon more of the many constituents of computable media, and thus more of the complexity and plurality
of new media, than any other critic I have read. Manovich does this by introducing new terms into the analysis of new media.
The "language" of his title suggests that the computer, as the new universal media machine, is producing new discourses and
new terms, and thus a new "language" in the strong sense of post-structuralism and Russian formalist theory. Manovich's book
implicitly invites the reader to enter into a language game that will develop a lexicon that can do two things: 1) specify
with precision the software technique and underlying technology of new media, and 2) open these techniques and technologies
out to the broader cultural practices and unsuspected historical affiliations of new media.
This terminological strategy is on display in his development of the term
"interface," the term used in computer science where there is "a point of
interaction or communication between a computer and any other entity"
(American Heritage Dictionary). Computer culture has given a rich
and diverse elaboration to this term because the interface is habitually the
crucial boundary, or zone of articulation and translation, whenever a computer
would communicate with devices (such as printers, networks, monitors, machines)
or the human user. In Interface Culture, Stephen Johnson
demonstrates the unprecedented centrality that computers give to the computer
human interface. Manovich takes a different approach: he expands the concept of
"interface" backward in time so that it encompasses not just the diverse software
interfaces of new media (from the desktop Windows environment to the conventions
of computer game design) but also the formal traits and user practices with
salient media like the printed word and cinema. Rather than viewing the
persistence of the printed word and cinema as the indebtedness of new to the old,
perhaps by citing Marshall McLuhan's well-known dictum that each new medium takes
an old medium as its content, Manovich argues that the printed word and cinema
should be considered not just as media forms but as "cultural interfaces." Here is
how he describes the crucial components of each: "the printed word" includes "a
rectangular page containing one or more columns of text, illustrations or other
graphic framed by the text, pages that follow each other sequentially, a table of
contexts, and index"; cinema "includes the mobile camera, representations of
space, editing techniques, narrative conventions, spectator activity" (71). These
formal descriptions of "the printed word" and "cinema" uncouple them from their
original media so that Manovich can trace how they migrate into, and become part of,
the interfaces of new media. Although the human-computer interface is much newer,
Manovich insists it has become "a cultural tradition in its own right" (72)
featuring "direct manipulations of objects on the screen, overlapping windows,
iconic representation, and dynamic menus" (71) along with operations like
copy/paste and search/replace. Manovich puts these three cultural interfaces side
by side so that we can see that they are richly different ways of "organizing
information, presenting it to the user, correlating space and time, and
structuring human experience in the process of accessing information" (72). The
subsistence of these cultural interfaces at the moment when the printed word and
cinema are being "liberated from their traditional storage media--paper, film,
stone, glass, magnetic tape" means that a "digital designer can freely mix pages
and virtual cameras, tables of content and screens, bookmarks and points of
The concept of "cultural interface" suggests what distinguishes this book from
many discussions of digital media: its resolutely historical
consciousness. Many critics have argued that the digital mutation,
through a kind of (historical) retroaction, is enabling us to see
earlier events like the "print revolution" in new ways. (For an
influential example, see Landow 20-32.) Manovich carries this
perspective much further by offering an archaeology of earlier
cultural forms and practices that are flowing into, and receiving
distinctive inflection within, new media. Thus Manovich's discussion
of the "screen" of the human computer interface [HCI] distinguishes
the static screen of traditional painting from the dynamic screen of
the moving image (of cinema and TV), and both of these from the
screen of real time (of radar, of video feeds). This comparative
perspective allows him to ask questions about how each screen places
the user and entails certain costs. He shows, for example, the
tension between uses of the computer screen to make it, on the one
hand, a real-time control panel, and on the other, the site for an
absorptive experience which expands the threshold of the visible but
imposes stasis on the body of the spectator.
Manovich's Analytical Engine
My discussion of Manovich's redefinition of new media does not come to terms with
the critical range of this book. With wit and elegance, Manovich
coordinates several different agents: the thoughtful critic of
modernism, the accomplished scholar of cinema, the innovative
practitioner of new media, and the humanist who wears his vast
learning lightly. All are needed to do what this book attempts: to
crosscut between the full range of contemporary new media (art and
popular culture) and the history of visual and technical culture.
The analysis achieves a lot of its rhetorical force from the
consistent operation of what I would like to call Manovich's
analytical engine. By using the word "engine," I am seeking to
isolate the recurrent movements in his analysis. I can demonstrate
this analytical engine as it sorts the implications of one of the
"operations" discussed in the third chapter: selection. Although
selection appears as an apparently simple and modest operation in
many software programs, Manovich insists upon its broader cultural
implications. "While operations [like selection] are embedded in
software, they are not tied to it. They are employed not only within
the computer but also in the social world outside it. They are not
only ways of working within the computer but also in the social
world outside it. They are... general ways of working, ways of
thinking, ways of existing in the computer age" (118).
To suggest the key rhetorical and conceptual moves of Manovich's analytical
engine, I have put them in bold type.
Manovich begins his overview by offering several empirical
examples of selection: he describes the centrality of
selection in programs from Adobe Photoshop 5,
Macromedia Director 7, and Apple's Quicktime
These programs suggest a basic logic of new media, which is
expressed as an opening generalization, provocatively overstated: "New
media objects are rarely created from
scratch; usually they are assembled from ready-made parts. Put
differently, in computer culture, authentic creation has been
replaced by selection from a menu" (124).
Archaeological questions that situate selection within the long
history of visual culture: "What are the historical origins of
this new cultural logic?" (125). Manovich describes the way E. H.
Gombrich and Roland Barthes have critiqued the romantic ideal of
artistic creation and how industrial production prepares for the
artistic experiments around 1910 with montage and photomontage,
culminating with their use in Metropolis (1923) and
other films, and finally, to Pop artists of the 1960s.
Manovich, playing the journalistic cultural critic, makes a broad and loose
cultural connection: "The process of art has
finally caught up... with the rest of modern society, where
everything from objects to people's identities is assembled from
ready-made parts. Whether assembling an outfit, decorating an
apartment, choosing dishes from a restaurant menu, or choosing which
interest group to join, the modern subject proceeds through life by
selecting from numerous menus and catalogs of items" (126). After a
discussion of the branching menu systems of various software
program, Manovich refuses to the software user the "author" function
of creating something new (128).
Manovich then poses a provocative question. How can one resist
this rhetoric of endless
choice through selection, the obligation to choose as a vehicle
for expressing your identity? Perhaps by accepting a computer's and
software program's bland defaults, one can refuse to choose, and
thus wear the software equivalent of jeans and a tee shirt.
Manovich then invokes a new media example to clinch the case for the centrality
of selection: "The WWW takes this process [of selection as more
pervasive than invention] to the next level: it encourages the
creation of texts that consist entirely of pointers to other texts
that are already on the Web" (127), cf. Yahoo, Voice of the Shuttle.
Manovich makes a a detour into the prehistory of cinema: the Magic
Lantern exhibitor was also a selector. Crucial to this
practice in film and video has been the modern standardization of
formats. These allow the cutting and pasting that enables selection
Manovich makes a cultural connection to art theory (here
postmodernism). The technique of pastiche, the quoting of
earlier styles, which is widely associated with postmodernism (by
Fredric Jameson and others in the early 80s) is seen by Manovich as
finding its fullest realization with software: "In my view, this new
cultural condition found its perfect reflection in the emerging
computer software of the 1980s that privileged selection from
ready-made media elements over creating them from scratch" (131).
Manovich makes a conceptual extension of the concept of
selection to that of filtering, in new as well as older electronic
media. It is not just selection that is central to new media,
but the fact that we can modify what we select through the use of
software programs, for example, through using the filters in
Photoshop. But this is not a new phenomenon in the
history of media. The telephone, the radio, and television were
already based on a technology that made selection--through the
modification of an existing signal--crucial. "All electronic media
technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are based on
modifying a signal by passing it through various filters. These
include technologies for real-time communication such as the
telephone, as well as broadcasting technologies used for mass distribution of
media products such as radio and television...." (132).
This leads to a retroactive interpretation of older media in
light of new media: "In retrospect, the shift from a material
object to a signal accomplished by electronic technologies
represents a fundamental conceptual step toward computer media. In
contrast to a permanent imprint in some material, a signal can be
modified in real time by passing it through a filter or filters... an
electronic filter can modify the signal all at once... an electronic
signal does not have a singular identity--a particular qualitatively
different state from all other possible states" (132). Examples include
volume control for a radio receiver and brightness control for an analog
TV set. "In contrast to a material object, the electronic signal is
essentially mutable." "This mutability of electronic media is just
one step away from the 'variability' of new media" (132-33).
This allows Manovich to make an assessment of the difference
effected by digital mutation: Now we can see that the mutability of signals suggests
that radio and TV signals are "already new media." "Put differently,
in the progression from material object to electronic signal to
computer media, the first shift is more radical than the second"
(133). The increase in range of variation in the digital is
accounted for by two factors: "modern digital computers separate
hardware and software" (so for example, changing volume will be just a software change) and second, "because an object is now represented
by numbers, that is, it has become computer data that can be
modified by software. In short, a media object becomes 'soft'--with
all the implications contained in this metaphor" (133). The
mutability of TV (with hue, brightness, vertical hold, etc.) becomes
the much wider range of variability for display of a page in a
Manovich closes his analysis through a witty invocation of a
new cultural practice: The rise of the DJ is seen as cultural
symptom of the centrality of the art of selection. "The essence of
the DJ's art is the ability to mix selected elements in rich and
sophisticated ways.... The practice of live electronic music
demonstrates that true art lies in the 'mix' (135).
- Manovich's analytical engine develops here an ordinary
term--selection--with which to think about what living in a computable culture
means. By his account, selection does not come from the computer running software.
It is something humans--artists, consumers, and users--do and have done in a vast
range of contexts, perhaps for as long as there has been human culture. Of course, by expanding the range of selectable commodities, modern
industrial production has increased the everyday salience of the act of selection.
By changing media objects into media signals, modern electronic media have expanded
the powers of selection through modulation (of, for example, a radio signal, its
volume, etc.). Manovich's discussion effectively puts aesthetic theorists,
moralists, and artists in dialogue around the subject of selection. Such a
perspective on "selection" embeds an argument against media determinism he never
makes explicit: computable media do not determine culture. The pleasures of
selection help to drive the harnessing of a technology that extends the powers of
selection. In this way, new media are a symptom of culture, rather than something
that comes from outside it (cf. Bruno Latour on technology). Of course, it is also
easy to see how selection in real time is greatly facilitated by the first four
principles of new media: numerical representation, modularity, automation, and
variability. Thus, by the way computers expand the pervasiveness and varieties of
selection, computable media bear their effects into culture. My favorite popular
cultural expression of this trend: Amy Heckerling's film Clueless,
where the heroine, Cher, begins the day by using a computer to preview and select
the outfit she will wear to Beverly Hills High.
Software Theory as a Theory of a-Media; or, Surpassing McLuhan
Although Manovich's book takes "new media" as its object, there is much in his
book to suggest that computable culture unsettles the media paradigm introduced
by Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s. In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making
of Typographic Man (1962) and Understanding Media: The Extensions of
Man (1964), McLuhan introduced a set of terms and concepts that defined
media studies. Like any other paradigm shift, McLuhan's work helped to ground
scholarly monographs in the humanities and social sciences (e.g., Elizabeth L.
Eisentein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change). But
McLuhan's ideas also became part of the common sense about media that circulates
in daily conversation and the Sunday supplements. To understand how the computer
running software challenges the grounding premises of media theory and media
history, I will suggest, very briefly, what these grounding ideas are. McLuhan's
invention of modern media theory depends on three related ideas. First, he
focuses on the centrality of the physical medium of communication and insists
upon the profound mutual imbrication of the medium (the material substrate of the
symbolic expression) and the "message" or meaning (ideas, ideology, plausible
genres, etc.) Thus the slogan, "the medium is the message." Second, by
emphasizing the way the physical contours of a medium condition the production, use,
and experience of media, McLuhan shifts attention from meaning to practice, from
what media do in the mind to the way bodies can dispose themselves while
communicating. Thus the transformation of the first slogan into its somatic
extension in an artist's book he published with the artist Quentin Fiore in 1967
under the title "the medium is the massage." Third, McLuhan's approach to
media encourages a broadly comparative study of media: media as different as
speech, manuscript, print, radio, and television, as well as other "media" of
communication such as the automobile, the airplane, the human body, etc., can be
compared with each other as to their defining traits and across their long
histories. Although McLuhan's approach has been exposed to withering
critique--for its central premise that [the] media [environment] determines
[human] culture, for its facile anecdotal "probes" of media history, and for its
quasi-religious belief that electronic media can restore an earlier time of
intuitive, embodied communication, McLuhan's writings offer a particularly
ecstatic and credulous version of what Armand Mattelart calls "the ideology of
communication" (xi). Nonetheless, any historian of media who accepts the
centrality of the category "media" inherits and extends the three basic ideas I
have listed above: the centrality of the media substrate, its implications for
embodied practice, and the comparability of media. As we have seen, Manovich is a
particularly effective practitioner of this sort of media history and analysis.
- In the way it applies this framework to "new media," The
Language of New Media also suggests the limits of
the media paradigm. For Lev Manovich allows us to grasp this fundamental fact
about new media: while computable cultural forms can be understood, for the sake
of historical comparison and in our study of modern media culture, as successors
to earlier media forms, a computer running software produces digital code which
simply is not a medium. Manovich first broaches this complication in his
story when he points to the limitations of the comparative historical approach he
uses so well. Understanding new media as old media that are now digitized and
thereby changed has fundamental limitations:
The most casual acquaintance with the history of the computer suggests the
relative autonomy of computable information from its media
"surface." Over sixty years of development, computers have
communicated information to their users first on paper tape, then on
computer cards, then on paper from printer output, then on video display
screens, and most recently through a simulated voice. Media are not
just used for input and output; the information within the computer
is stored on computer cards, magnetic tape, floppy disks and hard-drive media, and on the silicon chip (as RAM, ROM, and
bubble memory). Of course, this list of media is far from complete, and, in any case,
it is subject to ongoing technological extension.
[This perspective] cannot address the fundamental quality of new media that has
no historical precedent--programmability. Comparing new media to print,
photography, or television will never tell us the whole story. For although from
one point of view new media is indeed another type of media, from another it is
simply a particular type of computer data, something stored in files and
databases, retrieved and sorted, run through algorithms and written to the output
device. That the data represent pixels and that this device happens to be an
output screen is beside the point.... New media may look like media, but this is
only the surface. (47-48)
The mobility of information encoded in digital form makes the objects of media
study waver. Thus, although some computer code can be expressed as an
image that can be printed on glossy paper (and thus resemble a
conventional photograph) and other computer code can be expressed as
letters on a monitor screen, the physical surface (whether paper or
screen) is not the salient aspect of computable information systems.
In fact, one of new media's crucial traits is the way they elude
bondage to any medium. How is one to conceptualize this different
system so that we grasp not only how it extends the forms and practices of the
long history of media, but also the way it simply is
not a medium, but (perhaps) a species of a-media? Soon after
the passage quoted above, Manovich seems to realize that his
definition of new media challenges the media paradigm he still uses
for his analytical framework. He invokes the "revolutionary works" of
Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan and insists that we must turn to
computer science to understand new media. Then, in a gesture of
surpassing that echoes the manifestoes of modernism and
post-structuralism, Manovich calls for a fundamentally different
approach to computable media: "From media studies, we move to
something that can be called 'software studies'--from media theory to
software theory" (48, emphasis Manovich). That Manovich does not heed
his own call to go beyond media study and media theory, that he just
begins to explain what "software theory" might look like, does not
diminish the importance of his having demonstrated the logic of a
movement beyond the media paradigm toward one based on the great
underlying fact that software is what is really new about new
A computer and its software are much more intimately and essentially
co-implicated with one another than a book and its written content, a television
and its program. In fact, a computer scientist would be correct to point out that
the phrase I've been using--"a computer running software"--is tautological. From
the first mathematical theorization of the computer as a "universal machine" by
Alan Turing, and Turing's subsequent realization of an early (base 10) computer,
the "Bombe," built to decipher the code produced by the German Enigma machine in
WWII (see Singh and Hodges), to John Von Neumann's first designs for the computer
after the war, computers receive their essential character from the software they
do not just run but on which they run. When compared with the earlier analog
computing devices used to point weapons and automate machinery during World War
II, the flexibility and power of the computer running software comes from the way
data and the program are loaded into memory at the same time (Bolter 47-49,
Turing 436-42), meaning that the computer, unlike the machine, could be
reconfigured by the changes introduced at the level of software. Although the
phrase "the computer running software" is redundant, it offers a way to emphasize
how a relatively immaterial thing--software--invades and dematerializes its
supposedly hard home, what is conventionally called "hardware" but what we
sometimes mistakenly identify as "the computer." This is a mistake, not just
because hardware needs software the way, by analogy, the human
body needs the communications media of neurons, enzymes, and electric signals as a
condition of life. From the beginning of computing, even the hardest components
of design--the arrangement of circuits and vacuum tubes, the code embedded on
read-only memory, and microprocessors made of silicon--were designed to embed
"logic blocks" (like "and," "or," "invert") and algorithms first expressed as
software (see Hillis 21-38). In
other words, there is a very real sense in which the computer is software all the
How can we begin to think about the difference for media made by software? Manovich
shows how software produces uncanny effects upon the cultural and aesthetic
sphere it operates within, for example, by challenging the underlying assumptions
of the realist project. The long Western commitment to mimesis as a pathway to
truth (see Derrida, Disseminations) has gained expression in the
development of visual technologies--from the linear perspective of painting to
photography to film--that win visual fidelity for the image. It is hardly
surprising that the computer running software has been used to develop new and
more powerful forms of realism. For example, algorithms embedded in Adobe
Photoshop allow a photographer to correct and enhance a photograph.
However, the computer also simplifies the production of simulations of what was
photographed, undermining the indexical function of photography and cinema.
Manovich has a vivid way of putting this idea: "Cinema is the art of the index;
an attempt to make art out of the footprint" (295). Digital special effects
technologies have enabled Hollywood films to bring a new level of realism to the
visually believable representation of the impossible. For example, in
Terminator 2 an ordinary policeman seems to morph into a "metal
man." Manovich notes that digital special effects like "metal man" are made
possible by the software algorithms that migrate from computer science journals
to software programs. Because images within the computer interface can become
bit-mapped control panels, the software at the heart of the digital image
disturbs the classical image of the Western aesthetic tradition. There it was
assumed that the viewer assumed a detached frontal position before the image so
as to compare it with "memories of represented reality to judge its reality
effect" (183). The new media image summons a more active user: "The new media
image is something the user actively goes into, zooming in or clicking on
individual parts with the assumption that they contain hyperlinks (for instance,
image-maps in Web sites). Moreover, new media turn most images into
image-interfaces and image-instruments" (183, emphasis Manovich).
Images supported by software turn out to be fundamentally different from the
traditional images they can simulate. In order to fake photorealism, computer
software does not enrich but instead downgrades the synthetic image so that we
experience it as a photo: it is given the blur, graininess, and texture of
the photographic image. We may think of these computer-generated images as
inferior to the photographs, but Manovich notes, "in fact, they are too perfect.
But beyond that we can also say that, paradoxically, they are also too real"
(202, emphasis Manovich).
Manovich here gives a trenchant s/f turn to his argument. If we unmoor what is
being done from its arbitrary referent (here photorealism as a functional stand-in
for "reality"), we can see the uncanny difference of the new digital image: it can
go beyond the constraints of social conventions, aesthetic traditions, and even
the human perceptual apparatus. The computer running software can serve the old
ideals of visual realism, but it can also overturn that logic of appropriation
through visual approximation and proceed to do very different things. Thus in
Terminator 2, the fact that the metal man comes from the future
offers a narrative rationale for his ability to benefit fully from the "reflection
mapping algorithm" operating in the software. That algorithm creates the highly
unrealistic special effect of a hyper-reflective body. In this way, the "metal
man" of T2 provides a visual analog of the uncanny perfection, the
infinite plasticity, the soft hardness of the computer-generated image as it seems
to leap past the limitations of the film medium itself.
The synthetic image is free of the limitations of both human and camera vision.
It can have unlimited resolution and an unlimited level of detail. It is free of
the depth-of-field effect, this inevitable consequence of the lens, so everything
is in focus. It is also free of grain--the layer of noise created by film stock
and by human perception. Its colors are more saturated, and its sharp lines
follow the economy of geometry. From the point of view of human vision, it is
hyperreal. And yet, it is completely realistic. The synthetic is the result of a
different, more perfect than human, vision. Whose vision is it? It is the vision
of a computer, a cyborg, an automatic missile.... Synthetic computer-generated
imagery is not an inferior representation of our reality, but a realistic
representation of a different reality. (202)
An Ethos for Software Studies?
Software studies can teach us skepticism of what might be called the covert
idealism of media theory's materialism: the notion that if one knows
the medium of an act of semiosis, then one grasps its essence or
inner logic. There are obvious reasons to be distrustful of the
reductive tendencies of this sort of materialism. Thus, if a
molecular biologist tells us that all central constituents of
life--DNA, RNA and proteins--are composed of "nothing" but carbon,
oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, we have not learned very much about
what life is. For example, the life functions of these
molecules--most crucially the capacity to replicate--depend in part
upon the way they are folded into 3-dimensional shapes. Similarly,
when a cyber critic claims that what distinguishes the computer
running software is its use of digital code (bits of 1s and 0s),
or that all the algorithms that a computer can perform are
combinations of three logical actions: "and," "or," and "not," we have not learned much
about the underlying logic of computable culture. However, if
software studies gets us to travel too far away from the materialism
of media studies, toward a celebration of the "magic" (Bill Gates)
and "power" of software code, one soon finds oneself implicated in
problematic new fantasies of control and in an idealism based on the
immateriality of software.
A glance at the early history of computing suggests that a will to control
through the powers of the mind may explain the tendency to go beyond
material embodiment. Alan Turing and Norbert Weiner conceived the
computer as a machine that could simulate and extend human
intelligence, so it could, for example, decipher encrypted enemy
messages, target weapons in real time, and perhaps someday rival
human intelligence (for example, by beating human chess masters).
This project--by emphasizing the distance between the human and the
computer--helps to seed the s/f narratives about those robots,
artificially intelligent computers, and cyborgs that exceed their
assigned functions and return to haunt their human creators. This
popular interpretation of the computer as a dangerous "other," with
the diverse techno-gothic scenarios it invites, may have little of
the predictive value science fiction craves. Nonetheless, these
narratives carry intimations of the uncanny powers of the computer
running software. However, by exaggerating the distance between a
software technology and the historical and cultural locus of its
invention, they also breed popular new ideas of transcendence. For
example, in Clarke/Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey,
transcendence takes the form of the final ride where the astronaut
morphs into a "star child;" at the end of Gibson's
Neuromancer the mysterious union of the information
agents--Wintermute and Neuromancer--leads them to claim that they
are now "the matrix" of "the whole show" (269).
- Katherine Hayles has developed an analysis that challenges this
drift toward transcendence. In her overview of the historical emergence of the
concept of information after World War II, she notes that molecular biology helped
to popularize the notion that what is crucial to the constitution of human bodies
are the patterns of information embedded in genetic code. The hierarchies that
quickly creep into these terms breed a new form of idealism. "In the contemporary
view, the body is said to 'express' information encoded in the genes" (69-70).
Hayles shows how in this theory "pattern triumphs over the body's materiality--a
triumph achieved first by distinguishing between pattern and materiality and then
by privileging pattern over materiality" (72). By constructing "information as
the site of mastery and control over the material world," this line of
thinking suppresses the equally obvious insight that "the efficacy of
information depends on a highly articulated material base" (72). In this way,
Hayles casts suspicion on the idea that spirit (as code) is superior to matter,
an idea she links to Western religious culture and which returns with the
ultimate computer fantasy--Han Moravec's scenario by which humans could achieve
immortality by uploading the mind's information from the brain to a computer (72).
How can we grasp the new powers of software without refusing a necessary
embodiment and materiality? The temptations of disembodied
transcendence, so prevalent in books on "cyberculture," make this
reader appreciate the way Manovich has balanced the momentum and staying power of
traditionally embodied media forms (like the book, cinema, and the
screen) with a sustained analysis of what enables the production,
networked distribution, and use of "new" media: the computer running
Digital Cultures Project
Department of English
University of California, Santa Barbara
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1. The most casual reader of this book will be able to note "where Manovich comes
from"--film studies and the history of cinema. But his giving cinema pride of place among twentieth-century cultural
production is less an unconscious bias than a conscious strategy. It gives this book on a vast topic (new media) the
discursive coherence necessary to reconceptualize new media. Through an irony that obviously pleases Manovich, he is able to
show how many of the traits ascribed to new computer-based media can be read off the practice of the Russian 1920s avant-garde
filmmaker, Dziga Vertov.
2. Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel, has conceded
the impossibility of making a fundamental categorical distinction between the
code embedded in Intel chip designs and the software provided by Microsoft. This
became a problem when Intel wanted to embed functions in their chips to prepare
them for the use of Java, the open-source programming language developed by
Microsoft's rival, Sun Microsystems. Manovich notes the tendency, over the
development of a computer system, to integrate functions first introduced as
software into hardware defaults.
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