Meteoric Media Metamorphosis

New media, digital media and converged media  are terms we hear when discussing the ways we receive information today.  Usually we shrug and say, “Yeah, it’s all computerized and on our phones now.”  New media, however, has a rich, complex history we seldom appreciate in our daily lives.

In Chapter one of The Language Of Media, author Lev Manovich, discusses five principals he believes defines new media.  He explores the development of older media into today’s digital platforms by showing how technology builds upon itself, ever changing and improving, but never quite shedding its heritage.  Manovich reveals vestiges of the first automated punch card machine, the Jacquard loom, in today’s most sophisticated computers.

In a historical loop, the computer has returned to its origins. No longer just an Analytical Engine, suitable only for crunching numbers, it has become Jacquard’s loom–a media synthesizer and manipulator. Jacquard Loom

Manovich’s five principals create the unique aspects of new media.

Numerical representation is the cornerstone from which the other principals arise. All new media objects are mathematically defined, subject to mathematical manipulation, and become programmable.  In other words, every digital image, text, movie and sound can be reduced to binary code that can be manipulated, viewed and stored on a computer.

Modularity refers to the building blocks of all new media.  The individual elements within a media object combine to make the whole, yet maintain their independence. Each element can be manipulated within the whole which makes modifying one part of the object extremely easy. These elements could be small, like pixels or large, like pages in a document.

 Automation, the third principal,  can be found in Photoshop. redeyeexample Digital media can be manipulated with the touch of a button. The Photoshop program automatically manipulates  the picture by sharpening focus, adjusting contrast, removing red eye, etc.  Once delegated to the realms of programmers who understood code, pixel manipulation and complex mathematics, these corrections can be done by most anyone with basic computer knowledge.  This is considered a lower level of automation.  Higher level examples would be interactive computer games that change the dynamics of the game based on the skill level of the player.

Variability is a property of all new media. Scalability is a basic example of the variablity principal; objects can be generated at various sizes and levels of detail. Because of automation, web pages can have variable data, such as stock prices, constantly updated. Websites generating either a multimedia or bare bones  page based on the viewers connection speed is another example of the principal.

Transcoding, not only refers to translating something into another format, but the process of new media transforming society.  Manovich explains that new media consists of a cultural and a computer layer.  An image of a puppy makes everyone smile and say  “how adorable!”; this is the cultural layer. In reality, that image is a pixilated representation that encompasses the proceeding four principals.  Because the image of the puppy is created, distributed and stored via the computer

…The logic of a computer can be expected to significantly influence the traditional cultural logic of media; that is, we may expect the that the computer layer will affect the cultural layer.

As new technology changes the computer layer and influences culture, it must be said that the demands of the culture on how the technology is to be used affects the computer layer in return.


Manovich shows that six purported qualities of new media really aren’t so new or unique. He cleverly picks apart these assumptions and once again shows that new media’s roots are firmly planted in the past.   I will discuss a few concepts that are covered in detail.


It is often argued that new media can be non-linear and doesn’t fall into the constraints of time like older media; in new media, time is easily manipulated. Manovich offers that such nineteenth-century devices as the Zoopraxiscope and Marey’s photographic gun are all based on the same principal. Individual pictures, shot sequentially, could be arranged and displayed in a variety of edited outcomes.

 New media is often said to be “interactive” leaving the assumption that older media is not.  Manovich calls this the myth of interactivity.

Manovich points out that literary ellipses, movie montages and purposeful lack of detail in various forms of art  compress and alter natural time sequencing. headless statueWorks of art, pieces of literature, plays, movies and music require interaction. We must feel, move, touch, observe and think about our personal experience with the medium.

Computers are, by their very nature, interactive. Manovich, however, finds the term too broad and prefers using terms such as scalability, and menu-based interactivity  when discussing types of computer interaction.

According to Manovich, we often think of interactivity with a computer primarily as a physical phenomenon; punching keys and selecting objects on a screen.  In the end of the chapter, Manovich delves into psychological interactivity with computers. New media inventors, artists and psychologists offer the recurrent claim that..

New media technologies externalize and objectify reasoning, and that they can be used to augment or control it… the brain

Throughout technology’s development various aspects of media have been thought of as external representations of mental processes.  Manovich shows the seeds of these theories arise at the birth of each new technology.

In the 1900s one theory compared abstract ideas to using multiple negatives for creating a single, yet composite, photograph. It was theorized by Einstein that film could be used to externalize and control thinking via it’s message.  Newer theories use language suggesting natural reasoning reflects superimposing images, and scanning; terms that would have been impossible without the emergence of television and computer graphics. As Manovich says

These visual technologies made operations on images such as scanning, focusing, and superimposition seem natural.

An example of externalizing mental functions  in new media is the hyperlink.  These links can be seen as objectifying the mental process of association. Links tell us where to go next and what to think about in regards to what we’ve just read. We mistake our choice to “click or not  click” as interacting. The reality, says Manovich, is we are interfacing with preconceived ideas .

We are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own.

MY THOUGHTS Media’s ability to layer images, text, code, concepts and processes  within digital constructs might be thought of as simplified, external projections of cognitive function.  The terms “user friendly” and “intuitive programming” take on a new meaning for me now. These words don’t simply reflect better programming, but reflect deeper cognitive interactions between man and machine. As we make computers more like ourselves, a new reality arises; one where the internal concept of “Me” seamlessly extends outward to the Smartphone in our pockets.


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