A Picture of a Picture showing a Picture within a Picture….

We are currently reading chapter two of Manovich’s, The Language of New Media. The chapter focuses on computer-human interface (HCI) and how we culturally adapt to this mediated experience.


Manovich’s love of delving into media’s past is alive and well in this chapter. Human-machine interfacing has a long and convoluted history which Manovich wanders through in depth.  He explores how we adapt to new technology by rearranging our ideas of physical, virtual, and representational space.

Culture and interface

Culturally we  find assimilating new technology  more comfortable when keeping  terminology that allow a sense of familiarity.  A prime example is the page.  We reference “pages” in documents and websites without much thought because the term page is an ancient reference to the first printed texts.  We’re not actually flipping the pages of a book, but rather accessing different text files. When using our computers we also store things on our desk top and throw things in the trash can.

Consider the touch screen as yet another key component to the HCI interface of today.  We can physically touch images of icons to control the display on our screens.  Stuff-Magazine-Touch-Screen-TechnologyOften we forget the days of having to type in computer commands to get the same results.  Computer users today don’t even think about touching icons,  clicking on underlined words or swiping photos in order to get to where we want to go. These interactions have become part of our culture.  Few people contemplate the novelty any more.

It’s all about the screen…

Ancient screens were paintings.  The painting create an understood boundary between the real world and the images inside the frame. Psychologically we recognize the separation of this space.  The same concept is represented throughout the history of media. We see it in the edge of the movie screen , the outline of a TV and  the size of  a computer screen.

Initially the screen of a computer was an interface that took the language of the computer and assembled it into representations humans could understand.  Primarily this was data associated with storage and business processes. Now the interface is a multimedia experience. We use computers for viewing pictures, videos and 3-D worlds that break the boundaries between the real world and the screen. As Manovich notes

The printed word tradition that initially dominated the language of cultural interfaces is becoming less important, while the part played by cinematic elements is becoming progressively stronger.

Manovich shows that cinema is the major innovation influencing our activities with HCI.  With motion pictures, humans learned to sit still and allow the media to move them through time and space. Moviegoers could have a bird’s eye view of a scene or experience  laying on train tracks as a locomotive passed over the top. Reality could now be seen in ways we never thought possible. Today we have assimilated this into our digital culture and we don’t think about impossible viewer angles as out of the ordinary.

The ability of motion pictures to change point of view, zoom and pan opened a new level of interaction with a screen; a new way to enhance reality. The next step came with putting real time events onto the screen.  Military radar accomplished this perfectly. radar With this technology came the ability to see real time events represented symbolically on a computer screen. (The military was the first to use a light wand to activate points on the screen as well).

Real time, mediated events transformed into a virtual representation of real world experiences. Another military example is the fighter jet’s helmets. The pilot experiences what is real and what is virtual being synthesized into a new reality.F-35_Helmet_Mounted_Display_System

In the civilian sector, computer games have embraced virtual technology and combined it with cinematic experiences. Even large groups can enjoy the same interaction.

VR headsets and body sensors allow gamers to physically move in order to interact with computer generated images. No longer must participants sit still to interact with the screen. Virtual reality supplants all but the empty space around the player.vr goggles

Manovich reminds us that the language of cultural interface is evolving and changing because its still in the early stages. Unlike cinema and the printed would that stabilized into a steady form for hundreds of years, the computer language has much more fluidity

Given that computer language is implemented in software, potentially it could keep changing forever…We are witnessing the emergence of a new cultural metalanguage, something that will be at least a significant as the printed word and cinema before it.

My thoughts

As our culture continues to embrace reality through various screens of mediation (phone, tablets, computer and TV) do we suffer an unconscious desire to have everything mediated for us?  Have we begun to see our world validated only when put into a format we can readily manipulate? Has reality simply become…not enough?



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