Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
Alexander R. Galloway begins his article “What is New Media? Ten Years After The Language of New Media” by bluntly noting all of the “fluff” being published on the digital. For the past two decades, books dedicated to the digital are ubiquitous all fields and disciplines. How can one distinguish what is really worth reading? In 2001 alone (the year Manovich’s title was released), there were 3,854 books published with the word “digital” in its title and 154 more appearing with “New Media.” Galloway maintains, “There are very few books on new media worth reading” and Manovich’s work is on the short list (377).
After outlining some of the strengths of the book—most notably, for the author, its “description of digital technologies as poetic and aesthetic objects” (378)—Galloway confesses his concerns regarding the over-used term of “interactivity,” but, unfortunately, shies away from any real engagement of his own. (The two issues Galloway does take up in The Language of New Media is the overinvestment in cinema and lack of history, or perhaps better social or political history, a point on which Galloway defends Manovich.) It is this issue of interactivity with which I hope to engage here.
Interactivity is one of the key issues facing new media, especially as scholars continue to theorize, collect, and interpret the activities extent in social media, best practices and sustainability of open-access, and future advancements of new media in the arts and in scholarship.
From my own perspective, all arts, to some extent, can be called interactive, at least cognitively. Even in the traditional arts, there is interaction between the audience and the work, an interaction between the different codes that each “participant” brings to reading that work. Reading Manovich’s sections on The Screen and the Body & Representation Versus Simulation (in Chapter Two’s “The Interface”), a new series of questions arise concerning the relationship between cognitive and physical interaction. Does the latter accompany the former or follow it? What new questions are raised or what new opportunities are promoted by works that allow (or even require) audience performance? Is it that interactive art and Virtual Reality applications offer an opportunity for self-discovery?
The way the interface is designed will restrict (or may ultimately determine) the relationship between the system and the user. Examining how the interface is constructed will reveal some authorial intent and, in fact, only inverts Barthes’ notion of “the death of the author.”
On the front of VR, Manovich sees the emergence of a new paradox: while spectators are no longer fixed in their static roles as observers of ready-made images, VR imprisons the body by tying it to the machine. The split identity of spectator in both the physical and the representation, for the author, is “the tradeoff for the new mobility of the image as well as for the newly available possibility to represent any arbitrary space” (113). Although the future might be one in which “all ‘real’ actions take place in the virtual” (that idea of individuals carrying their own prisons doesn’t seem to worry Manovich), the author concludes the chapter with the addendum: “a screen is still a screen . . .We still have not left the era of the screen” (114, 115).
On the issue of authorship, Manovich envisions the user as the “coauthor” of a program “choosing the values from a number of predefined menus” (128). But, again, the user can only select those options that the author/programmer constructs. Manovich seems to celebrate the variability of websites, for example, because of users’ equipment (like screen resolution) and connections, but I see this as also problematic—those with access to the “best” resources will have the greatest opportunities and greatest number of databases, choices.
Despite some lingering questions I have concerning how the codes creating programs and interfaces should be read and interpreted themselves, I appreciate Manovich’s work on the assemblage, on sampling, and his identification of the DJ as “a new kind of author” (134). Manovich realizes the important transition in this age from learned technical skills to artistry. His brief section on the DJ, it is worth noting, predates Paul D. Miller’s (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) Rhythm Science, Lawrence Lessing’s Remix, and Mark Amerika’s remixthebook.
I am left here still thinking about, staring at, the screen…
In an upcoming post, I hope to address this (by readdressing Galloway’s criticism of Manovich’s cinematic biases). How does focusing on film limit Manovich’s work on new media? How would extending his section on the printed word add to his argument? What do studies in the history of the book have to offer the study of new media?
Galloway, Alexander R. “What Is New Media? Ten Years After ‘The Language Of New Media’.” Criticism 3 (2011): 377-384.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.