- What is New Media? Ten Years after the Language of New Media
A frank assessment to begin: There are very few books on new media worth reading.1 Just when the naysayers decry the end of the written word, bookstore shelves still overflow with fluff on digital this and digital that. And even as a countervailing chorus emerged that was more skeptical of the widespread adoption of new media—in France, Jacques Chirac once spoke disparagingly about “that Anglo-Saxon network” (for, as anyone knows, in the beginning there was Minitel)—it was evident that the Internet revolution had already taken place in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Like it or not, the new culture is networked and open source, and one is in need of intelligent interventions to evaluate it. In the years since its original publication in 2001, Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media has become one of the most read and cited texts on the topic.2 It is a key entry in the disciplines of poetics and cultural aesthetics, and has helped define the new field of software studies. The book is not without its limitations, however, and perhaps today one may begin to reevaluate the text with the fresh eyes of historical distance, and through it reassess the rampant open sourcing of all aspects of cultural and aesthetic life, from our tools to our texts, from our bodies to our social milieus.
The Language of New Media comes out of the first generation of Internet culture. What this means is that the book is the product of a specific sliver of history when the conditions of the production and distribution of knowledge were rather different than they are today. What was once a subversive medium is now a spectacle playground like any other. The first phase of Web culture, one must admit, carried a revolutionary impulse; call it the Saint-Just to today’s imperial era. Manovich’s book is a product of that first phase. Walls were coming down, hierarchies were crumbling, the old brick-and-mortar society was giving away to a new digital universe. On the one hand, new virulent ways of looking at the world were forming with unprecedented ferocity—sometimes conveniently labeled the California [End Page 377] ideology—coalescing around the neoliberal impulse to open source everything (information wants to be free, desire wants to be free, capital wants to be free) and the promise to liberate mankind in ways only dreamed of by our forebears in the social movements of the 1960s. On the other hand, amid this process of leveling, a new Republic of Letters began to form using e-mail and bulletin-board systems that seemed to offer a real intellectual and social community devoted to the exploration and critique of new media. The Language of New Media is a product of this community. Discussed and refined in online forums like nettime and partially previewed prior to publication on the e-mail list Rhizome (a website named enthusiastically, if naively, after the emancipatory topology described by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari), The Language of New Media was written for, within, and against the new Internet culture of the late 1990s.
This is not to suggest that Manovich’s book has nothing more to say to us today, nor that we should look backward with nostalgic yearning for a simpler time. On the contrary, the simple premise of the book—that new media may be defined via reference to a foundational language or set of formal and poetic qualities identified across all sorts of new media objects, and indeed across historical and social context—suggests the opposite approach: we are required to think critically and historically because the digital is so structural, so abstract, so synchronic.
The strength of the book lies in its description of digital technologies as poetic and aesthetic objects. It aims to be a kind of general textbook on new media. Manovich begins from his own experience with software and then he extends his observations so that the “telling detail” becomes a piece in a larger system. Is Manovich’s worldview a modernist one? I think...