Henning Ziegler on Fri, 19 Jul 2002 15:13:55 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Hypertext [part 3 of 5]

[This is part 3 of a 5 part paper, comments or corrections are appreciated]

3  A Digital Materialist View of New Media

Henning Ziegler

Without that material anchorage, text is free to become infinite, to
assume magical, semi-divine powers.  It is such a theological concept of
the infinite text that inhabits cyberspace, and which a materialist
account of reading must expose.
-Sean Cubitt, Digital Aesthetics

I have been talking now for quite some length about new media objects, the
cultural interface, or cyberspace without describing the formal structures
of those concepts.  Lev Manovich's recent The Language of New Media is one
of the few books with an emphasis on what the author calls 'digital
materialism:' "Rather than imposing some a priori theory from above, I
build a theory of new media from the ground up.  I scrutinize the
principles of computer hardware and software and the operations involved
in creating cultural objects on a computer to uncover a new cultural logic
at work" (Manovich 2001: 10).  Manovich's approach, then, is strikingly
similar to Jameson's in that he establishes a 'digital materialist'
reading while at the same time he deconstructs the 'essence' behind new
media objects.  This move also makes him refraining from speculating about
the future of new media in favor of making 'informed guesses' at the most,
since cyberspeculation is typically found in texts that work under the
assumption of a 'real meaning' of cyberspace (recall Stenger's "space for
collective restoration and for peace").  So what sets new media objects
formally apart from old media objects?  

First of all, the term 'object' needs some explanation.  'Object' in
Manovich's use reaches beyond new media in that it designates that various
kinds of cultural expressions that share a similar formal logic: books,
CD-ROMs, hypertexts, computer programs, video games, 3D-environments, and
the like.  Describing something as a 'new media object' then emphasizes
"the general principles of new media that hold true across all media
types, all forms of organization, and all scales" while keeping in mind
that a new media object is a subset of cultural objects in general
(14).  Apart from this, the term 'object' invokes the computer lingo of
'object-oriented programming' (Java) and the Object Linking and Embedding
(OLE) technology in Microsoft Office.  New media objects as opposed to old
media share five principles: The first one is numerical representation,
refering to the possible  "translation of all existing media into
numerical data accessible through computers" (20).  A film, a photograph,
or a sound as digital code can be manipulated on a computer without regard
to their orginal format (for example with cut and past
operations).  Modularity points to the fact that once composed into a new
media object, smaller modules retain their original structure-the distinct
elements or modules of a website, for example (images, movies, sounds,
applets, or texts), retain their independent edibility.  A third
principle, automation, means that the modular structure of numerical code
allows "for the automation of many operations involved in media creation,
manipulation, and access" (32).  Generally then, new media objects are
liquid: their digital structure continues to be variable, even if they
exist as fully-fleged artwork.  The most important principle of new media
for Manovich, however, is transcoding, which Fredric Jameson describes for
cultural criticism as "the invention of a set of terms, the strategic
choice of a particular code or language, such that the same terminology
can be used to analyze and articulate two quite distinct types of
objects" (Jameson 1981: 40).  In computer culture, transcoding is not an
invention but rather the everyday operation "to translate something into
another format" (Manovich 2001: 47).  The concept then calls to mind that
new media are merely 'on the surface,' underneath them is "computer
ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics" (46).  For Manovich, though,
invoking this concept of computer culture means that "cultural categories
and concepts are substituted (...) by new ones that derive from the
computer's ontology, epistemology and pragmatics" (47).  The new media
logic transforms everyday culture-think of the interface-like elements
that enter into contemporary graphic design (SONY billboard
advertisements) or into old media formats such as television (the
Windows-style redesign of the most prominent German TV news).

A concept that perhaps best highlights the difference between old and new
media is the idea of distributed content, and the corresponding
characteristics of openness or closure.  "The epic world is an utterly
finished thing, not only as an authentic event from the distant past but
also on its own terms and by its own standards; it is impossible to
change, to re-think, to re-evaluate anything in it," says M.M. Bakthin
about the novel (Bakhtin 1981: 17).  As a finished object, a book
structurally does not permit changes; annotations are always discernible
as such from the main text, and errors can only be corrected in another
edition.  Formally, then, books as old media objects can be read as a
strategy for unification and closure of a content that is divergent, or
antagonistic, whereas new media objects remain variable or liquid, as
Manovich's principle suggests.  Think of a website: Its content is
distributed over a database; the images are usually in one 'folder,' audio
in others.  The page is assembled automatically by a programmed HTML file
that 'calls up' the modules from their distributed locations.  In a simple
HTML page, only objects that are not the main textual content are located
in different files or even on different computers in a network, and if the
pages work with dynamically created content, everything except for the
page layout lies somewhere else.  Note that all links to modules (and Web
hyperlinks in general) are really equal, the content is 'flattened out,'
so if you try to 'deconstruct' a website, each element retains its
original structure-it had been structurally deconstructed/modular from the
beginning (The work of Derrida presupposed the original unity of the book
as old media object).  

New media objects then also hold different implications for authorship
than old media do.  Since many new media objects are organized around the
logic of the database, making a new media objects becomes something akin
to the operations of the DJ in modern musical culture.  A database in
computer language is "a structured collection of data;" in a more general
sense, though, databases are "collections of individual items, with every
item possessing the same significance as any other" (Manovich
2001: 218).  The DJ/new media author selects elements from a database and
composes them into a new media object.  Interestingly, this DJ authorship
that is based on the database as a 'symbolic form' transcodes computer
epistemology into our cultural behavior of everyday life: as Manovich has
rightly pointed out, we browse through a cultural catalogue to chose
modular clothes, music, friends, food, and on top of that we 'copy and
paste' Eastern religion into our lives-no wonder we start seeing the world
around us as a database.  Having arrived at this implication, then, it
seems clear to me that a 'cultural composite' way of living readily lends
itself to a political reading.  So in the next chapter, I'll attempt to
interpret some of the general structural aspects of new media objects that
I've talked about so far in social or political terms.

[end of part 3]

Henning Ziegler, Berlin

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