A look at Manovich, Chapter 1: What Is New Media?

New media: It’s a phrase that has evolved over the decades. And, like many such terms, it has become a lightning rod for debate in the theoretical sphere, with thinkers across an array of philosophical, social, and cultural positions discussing the issues. In his 2001 book, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich attempts to pin down the elusive definition, evaluating his main points from within a clearly-defined framework.
Manovich’s first chapter, “What is New Media?” begins to lay the foundation for his viewpoints on new media. Although the idea of new media is frequently linked with the idea of media designed for distribution via computer – an idea that Manovich accepts in part – he does not view this definition as fully inclusive. He also includes media types that use computers in the production or storage process. His definition of new media involves the intersection of computing technology and media technology, creating formats in which the media themselves are made up of numerical data (bits and bytes) that are accessible – speak the “language” – of computers.
Five central principles form the basis for Manovich’s thesis. The first of these is numerical representation – in other words, the elements of new media are ultimately composed of digital code. This implies that these media can be described or manipulated mathematically, like other formats that are compatible with the binary code of computers. Manovich also points to modularity, or the concept that the units of new media retain the same structure throughout. Thus, new media units can be split or assembled into a larger object without losing their essential identity. Automation, the third key principle, is also intimately connected with the artificial intelligence routines of computers; it can push the human element in media to the sidelines. The fourth idea is variability, among the most exciting of the new media concepts. Unlike old media formats which were, in effect, rendered “final” at the time of their completion, new media can eventually give birth to additional creative works. The last of Manovich’s main ideas is transcoding, which bridges the traditional gulf between human culture (most often associated with artistic genres such as painting, music, and sculpture) and computer data. Works created in new media pertain to the seemingly divergent classifications of computer science and the humanities, and can potentially influence the subsequent development of both.
To Manovich, some ideas of “new media” do not truly apply, whether because they do not accurately describe new media or because they have also been present in old media. The established media format of film, for instance, has the qualities of multimedia (image mixed with sound), random access (all elements of the picture are viewed simultaneously), and discrete representation (the work is made up of a vast number of smaller parts). Similarly, he believes that ideas such as loss of information with digitization, endless replicability, and interactivity are either not strictly correct for new media or can be found in previous media forms.


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