Manovich, Chapter 4: Illusion in New Media

Unlike face-to-face communication, mediated communication – any form of communication that involves the use of a medium – introduces a new channel to transmit the message. This typically relies on the use of illusion, something that is not exactly what it seems to be. The examples of this phenomenon are numerous. The radio inside the car does not actually contain a live band; a Skype conversation that seems “face-to-face” actually may connect people separated by hundreds of miles; and the 28-inch television screen showing the NCAA basketball tournament does not really have 10 basketball players, three bellowing announcers, dozens of bouncing cheerleaders, and 20,000 screaming fans, no matter what the top-notch sound system may lead viewers to believe. In “The Illusions,” the fourth chapter in Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, the Russian-born media theorist takes a look of his own at the illusions that make the impossible possible in the modern-day media world.
Manovich shows how the task of creating illusion, once the domain of the world’s masters of painting, is now dominated by the computers of the twenty-first century. In fact, many of the software systems and practices described in the chapter have been superseded by newer technologies since the book’s publication in 2001. However, many of the underlying principles remain unchanged. Because computer representation can break images down into discrete elements (pixels), a single operation through the computer system can change the nature of the image – and, by extension, the nature of the illusion the viewer perceives. Manovich notes traditional theories of illusion, highlighting their emphasis on relationships between the images in an illusion and their real-life counterparts.
In addition, Manovich compares and contrasts the basic essence of older and newer media and how these elements affect the perception of illusion. He uses the example of photography as a starting point. When a person takes a picture with a traditional film camera, the subject of the photo already exists in reality – the camera simply performs the task of capturing an image of the existing object. Constructing an image in new media, though, is fundamentally the opposite. The object or scene depicted in computer graphics does not have a basis in physical reality. Instead, to create the illusion, it is necessary to “build” the image from scratch, assembling it from individual pixels until it takes on the appearance of reality.

One new method of capturing graphics and one old one, standing side by side.

One new method of capturing graphics and one old one, standing side by side.

Another facet of illusion in new media is the changing role of the user. In classical painting, for example, the artist attempted to give paintings the appearance of reality, but the viewer simply served in the passive role of looking at the finished work. Manovich says, however, that illusions in new media are different. Here, illusions are not designed just for visual effect. Whether they are icons on the menu of a smartphone screen or the simulated world of a multi-player online video game, images are used as means to an end – the user is expected to act upon them. Depending on the form of new media product, according to Manovich, either role – passive viewer or active participant – may be emphasized.

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