K. A. Wisniewski

The Language of New Media: An Overview


After recently reading Ceruzzi’s Computing: A Concise History (MIT Press, 2012), Randall Packer and Ken Jordan’s anthology Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality (Norton, 2002), and the collection The Long History of New Media: Technology, Historiography, and Contextualization edited by David W. Park, Nicholas W. Jankowski, and Steve Jones and rereading classics like Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (MIT Press, [1964] 1994) and Dick Higgins’ essays (on what he dubbed “intermedia”) (1966), I wasn’t surprised in a recent search to find the OED dates the first use of the term “new media” to a 1960 article in the Journal of Economic History.

Just as manuscript culture transitioned into print culture in the 16th century, McLuhan saw the 1960s as another point of transition, one in which electronic media will remake the world into a global village.  As the previous entry on Ceruzzi hopefully made clear, there is a genealogy to new media, that is, to understand what’s new about new media, we need some historical awareness.  Even McLuhan notes that our understanding of new media arrives by looking into the “rear-view mirror.”

invisible shapes of things past

The Invisible Shape of Things Past, 1995-2007

Joachim Sauter and Dirk Lüsenbrink

Please click on the image to be linked to ART + COM and watch the video 

What did surprise me, to some extent, after looking at the OED (and conducting a few additional bibliographic searches), is the time lapse between McLuhan’s work in the 1960s (and the even earlier the work of Harold Innis in the 1950s, as referenced by Manovich) and the beginnings what Lev Manovich refers to as “software studies” in his now classic work The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2001, 48).  (As an interesting side note on just how slow the academy and/or scholarship is to transition, the MIT Press series Software Studies wasn’t launched until 2008.)

That’s not to say that the academy took a step backwards in the 1970s and 80s; it was playing catch-up, reconfiguring curricula towards interdisciplinarity and investing in cultural studies, critical theory, sociology—translation studies and comparative literature whose programs really helped nurture these fields—and film studies.  All of these, and especially the last, informs Manovich’s work.

I am not asking that clichéd question, “What’s new about new media?”  (I’ll leave that one for Manovich.) Instead, I’d like to investigate The Language of New Media as, what Alexander R. Galloway refers to as a book that is “the product of a specific sliver of history when the conditions of the production and distribution of knowledge were rather different from they are today. Manovich’s book is a product of that first phase [of Web culture].”  Part One is an outline of Manovich’s work; Part Two will serve as a response.

On The Language of New Media

The Language of New MediaFormer instructor at UCSD and UMBC, this January, Manovich joined the faculty at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and, in July, his latest work Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media will be released from Bloomsbury.

Manovich begins The Language of New Media with a brief lament over the lack of record-keeping and critical analyses of the beginnings of cinema during the fin de siècle.  The worry continues that future historians will share the concerns about the early days of the digital computer.


Here, Manovich sets up the origins of new media by marking “two trajectories”—that of the early computer (like Ceruzzi he emphasizes Babbage) and that of modern media (especially graphics, photography and sound)—that ultimately intersect in the 1940s.  This intersection thus reveals what Manovich outlines as the five principles of new media:

  1. Numerical representation
  2. Modularity
  3. Automation
  4. Variability
  5. Transcoding

This introduction is concluded by highlighting some of the “myths” of the digital, principles, like discrete representation and random access, already being employed by cinema.

Subsequent chapters investigate user interface, compositing, interactivity, databases and navigation, ever mindful of each aspect’s historical roots to cinema.  Chapter Two, for example, explains how the cinema, the print word, and Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) have each shaped 1990s cultural interface.  Perhaps a bit obvious to digital natives, Manovich builds interesting parallels between textual representation on scrolls, the printed page, and the screen (74-75) and, again, later between Renaissance paintings, the film screen, the computer screen, and Virtual Reality (VR) (95-96).  Both examples are meant to demonstrate how the computer descends, and yet is also detached, from these antecedent models; it continues traditions and challenges them.

The following chapters on software development and illusions follow similar trajectories.  He shows how the commands of Windows Media Player and RealPlayer emulate those of the VCR and argues that, despite the professional-amateur relationship remains unchanged (which I might, to some degree, disagree with), both groups use programs like Photoshop and Dreamweaver that   Investigating three varieties of operations—selection, compositing, and teleaction—reveals assembling as a critical term for new media.  “Digital compositing”, as seen in films like Terminator 2 (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), and Wag the Dog (1997), has the ability to “create a virtual world the moves—and that can be moved through—[but this also] comes at a price” for Manovich (153).  It’s financially expensive, time-consuming, and sometimes so clear and realistic that it needs artificial blurring and added grittiness to meet audience expectations.  VR’s “quest for a perfect simulation of reality” is the focus of the next chapter.  Manovich accounts for the evolution of 2D and 3D graphics and conceptions of the real in cinema and computing (more specifically, computer animation).  With “the synthetic [becoming] . . . ‘too real,’” the representation of the real is no longer secure (199).

Jurassic Park

For Manovich, indexes and databases are themselves a medium and observes that “in the information age, narration and description have changed roles” (217).  Today there are too few narratives and too much information; this observation prompts Manovich to call for something he calls “info-aesthetics”:

“a theoretical analysis of the aesthetics of information access as well as the creation of new media objects that “aestheticize” information processing.

A new binary, or “battlefield”, emerges here between narrative and database.  British film director Peter Greenaway is cited as complaining about the standard linearity in cinema while the literary circles of Joyce, Eliot, Borges, and Perec worked around or passed it.  But Manovich reminds us that “cinema already exists right at the intersection between database and narrative” as all filmed material accumulate a database and it is only in the final stages of editing that a linear narrative is cut (237).  The second half of the chapter looks at navigation and narrative action in a host of works including the games Doom and Myst, William Gibson’s “data cowboy”, and the 1982 Disney film Tron.

Fittingly, Manovich ends where he begins . . . at the intersection of the cinema and computing.  Even more appropriate, he reverses the initial question “What is new media?” by asking, “What is cinema?” In noting films like Titanic and Run, Lola, Run, Manovich looks at the impact of computerization on movies.  He doesn’t mention Pixar or Toy Story (the first CGI feature-length animation) or a number of projects experimenting with CGI.   (And it is interesting to note that Windows Movie Maker was released the same year of Manovich’s book, as was Peter Jackson’s first installment of Lord of the Rings, which used AI for digital actors with software called Massive (Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment).) However, he leaves us with some interesting questions on the future of new media/cinema: Will the loop be the new narrative? Is the future one in which the code (e.g. The Matrix) is no longer buried under the surface? What is to become of “off-line” formats, and where will the future of new media’s open source lead?

Matrix code

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This entry was posted on March 3, 2013 by in Digital Humanities and tagged , .
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