- Digital Media and Art:Always Already Complicit?
What do Manuel Castells, Lev Manovich, Will Wright, Howard Rheingold, Paul Dourish, Christa Sommerer, Margaret Morse, and N. Katherine Hayles have in common? They all create or study digital media artifacts. What else do they have in common? As far as I can see, nothing. Their diverse backgrounds and expertise mirror the diversity of digital media today. Popular writers on new media often tell a story of convergence to some single technological future, but what we are seeing today is a rich diversity of forms of production and critical approaches. The areas of digital media production include communications and publishing software, games and other entertainment software, digital art, and experimental design. The disciplines studying digital media include mass communications and sociology, human-computer interaction, art history and theory, film theory and history, literary theory, and the relatively new field of media studies itself. Even if we limit ourselves to the intersections of art, entertainment, and digital media technology, it would be difficult to tell a coherent story that includes all the forms of production and critique.
Instead of attempting an overview of digital media today, then, I am going to use three recent works as the basis for a discussion of three overlapping issues. Lisa Gitelman, Marie-Laure Ryan, and Johanna Drucker have written three very good books in media studies. Gitelman cites some earlier works of Drucker, but [End Page 107] otherwise there are no cross-citations, despite the numerous references and substantial indexes in each book. Gitelman's book is a historical study that compares the reception of two "new media" technologies in American culture: the phonograph at the end of the nineteenth century and network computer communications in the 1960s and '70s. Ryan is a narratologist who is trying to classify the functions of narrative in digital and other contemporary media. Drucker's book, apparently not about digital media at all, examines contemporary visual art, focusing on painting and photography of the 1990s. Yet the question Drucker raises about the relationship of art and popular visual culture can (and should) also be posed for the growing body of digital art. Each of these books contributes to a debate about new media, although no two of them participate centrally in the same debate.
The Newness of New Media
The fact that another term for digital media is "new media" opens one such debate. For popular writers today, there is no question that digital media are essentially and necessarily new. For them, digital technology constitutes a revolution in communication and representation, to which each development in hardware and software (the World Wide Web, the DVD, GPS, even Second Life and YouTube) makes its contribution. The technology companies understandably promote this view. According to Steve Jobs, for example, Apple alone has been responsible for three revolutionary developments: the Mac, the iPod, and now the iPhone. Newspaper and magazine writers on technology as well as many academics fall easily into this rhetoric of the new. They assume that they must emphasize the computer's uniqueness to justify it as a new medium, so they try to show that digital technology possesses a set of characteristics that set it apart from all previous media. The assumptions of novelty and medium-specificity have filtered down from the writings of the high modernists of the 1950s and '60s, such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, and today constitute what we might call "popular modernism."
It would be pedantic to try to avoid the term "new media" altogether. We do, however, need to understand the cultural work that the term is made to do, and, where appropriate, we need to challenge the assumptions of popular modernism. Lisa Gitelman provides such a challenge in Always Already New...