Most scholars of modern media now agree that the shift of symbolic representation to a global digital information network is as systemic and pervasive a mutation, and as fraught with consequences for culture, as the shift from manuscript to print. Anyone who wants to think clearly about the cultural implications of the digital mutation should read Lev Manovich’s new book, The Language of New Media. This book offers the most rigorous definition to date of new digital media; it places its object of attention within the most suggestive and broad-ranging media history since Marshall McLuhan’s; finally, by showing how software takes us beyond the constraints of any particular media substrate—paper, screen, tape, film, etc.—this book overcomes the media framework indexed by its own title. The Language of New Media leads its reader to confront what is strange yet familiar, that is, uncanny, about the computable culture we have begun to inhabit.
Before characterizing Manovich in greater detail, it is helpful to say what this book is not. Pragmatically focused upon the present contours of computable media, Lev Manovich is neither a prophet nor a doomsayer, peddling neither a utopian manifesto nor dystopian warnings. Manovich also eschews the conceptual purity of those cultural critics who set out to show how new digital media realize the program of Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida (insert your favorite theorist). Like many raised in the former Soviet Union, Manovich seems inoculated against any explicit aesthetic, conceptual, or political ideology. Instead, Manovich practices a catholicity founded in negative capability: if an art practice or popular media culture has flourished, it is part of the picture, and the critic and historian of media must find a way to account for it. This helps to explain the remarkable scope of Manovich’s book as it ranges easily from analysis of the software/hardware/network infrastructure that supports new media practice to the synthetic efforts to explain what new media is; from contemporary artistic practice to aesthetic theory; from popular media culture to advanced media theory; in short, from the Frankfurt School and Dziga Vertov to the GUI (Graphical User Interface) and Doom.
Defining New Media
What makes new digital media different from old media? Many early answers—discrete versus continuous information, digital versus analog media—founder upon closer inspection. A host of scholars and critics have approached this question from various vantage points: the history of technical culture (Jay David Bolter), hypertext (George Landow), narrative (Janet Murray), architecture (William J. Mitchell), virtual reality (Michael Heim), theatre (Brenda Laurel), and so on.1 From these books there has emerged a series of general traits ascribed to new media. Here are a few: new computer-based media are described as procedural, participatory, and spatial (Murray); discrete, conventional, finite, and isolated (Bolter); liquid (Mitchell); productive of virtuality (N. Katherine Hayles, Heim) or of cyberspace (William Gibson). While these traits and terms have cogency within particular analyses, the attempt to generalize their use brings diminishing returns. Thus Manovich argues that a favorite term to characterize new media—“interactive”—is simply too broad and vague to be critically useful. It not only fails to account for the variety and specificity of new media, the term also tendentiously implies that old media are fundamentally non-interactive. For example, isn’t it part of the critical point of various kinds of modernism to make its audience “interact” with the art object (56)?
Trying to isolate the essential traits of new media repeatedly courts two complementary problems: one may overplay the novelty and difference of new media by ascribing to it traits in fact found in old media (so, for example, random access to packets of data is as old as the codex); or, by restricting attention to the aesthetic or phenomenological effects of new media products, for example by comparing “e-literature” and print literature as formal artifacts (cf. J. Hillis Miller on “the Digital Blake”), one may fail to come to terms with the difference made by what lies at the heart...