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<nettime> Hypertext pre0.3
Henning Ziegler on Fri, 4 Oct 2002 18:33:59 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Hypertext pre0.3

[...and the third part...]

3 Hypermedia Objects and Authorship

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 mentioning terms such as human computer interface, new media
object, or hypermedia in this article without really describing what's
behind any of these concepts.  Also, I haven't said anything yet to
differentiate between authoritative hypermedia works such as Afternoon and
networked texts on the Web such as the Connex I/O project
(http://www.c-io.de).  Lev Manovich's recent The Language of New Media is
one of the first books that establish a formal view of new media, so let's
now look at the concepts that Manovich employs to lay the groundwork for a
later, more detailed analysis.  In its most basic sense, Manovich's
approach is somewhat similar to Fredric Jameson's argument in that
Manovich seeks to establish a formal, 'digital materialist' reading of new
media while at the same time deconstructing the 'real meaning' behind new
media objects.  He does this by tracing new media back to a historical
convergence between photography and the computer in the first computers
that executed whatever programs were fed into it in the form of punching
cards (just as film is fed into a movie projector).  While this approach
prevents Manovich from engaging in utopian cyberspeculations (recall
Stenger's "our future can only take on a luminous dimension"), I disagree
with the strong emphasis that he puts on the cinematic character of new
media.  The main thesis of the book, namely, that "the visual culture of a
computer age is cinematographic in its appearance" and "digital on the
level of its material" (Manovich 2001, p. 180), is perhaps best understood
in the context of Manovich's U.S. West coast background in computer
graphics, programming, and game culture (Manovich now teaches at UC San
Diego).  But, as Inke Arns has asked in her review of The Language of New
Media, what about text-based electronic mail as the most widely used
service of the internet?  What about textual Web chats
(http://www.chatcity.de) and IRC (internet relay chat), internet
applications that more people use than 3D chat environments
(http://www.thepalace.com) since the latter require elite, high speed Web
connections?  But let's leave this discussion aside for now, since with
the ecstasy about virtual reality (VR) of the early 90s having subsided
and access politics having stepped to the foreground, the appearance of
new media has in some areas become more simple or textual (hip,
stripped-down code editors such as Textpad as opposed to larger
programming environments), while it has become more cinematic in others
(the MacOSX and Windows XP interfaces, for instance).  The relative
dichotomy between Manovich's Californian interpretation of visual culture
(surface/cinematic) over a European low tech aesthetics (code/textual)
does not harm any of Manovich's underlying principles of new media -
cutting and pasting also works on the text-only system of a Unix
workstation.  So let me turn to the new media characteristics.

Manovich employs several terms that I'm using in this article to describe
the politics of cultural objects.  First of all, the term 'cultural
object' needs some explanation.  'Object,' for Manovich, reaches beyond
new media to the cultural sphere in that it suggests that various kinds of
cultural 'expressions' share a similar formal logic: books, CD-ROMs,
hypertext, computer programs, video games, or 3D-environments can all be
regarded as cultural objects.  Furthermore, the term 'object' nicely
invokes the computer lingo of object-oriented programming (Java, C++ etc.)
and the Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) technology in Microsoft Office
(meaning, for instance, the possibility of inserting an image into a Word
document).  Labelling something, more specifically, new media object
emphasizes the "principles of new media that hold true across all media
types, all forms of organization, and all scales" - new media objects are
a subset of cultural objects in general (14).  With this in mind, Manovich
establishes five principles of new media (as opposed to old media):
Numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and
transcoding.  Numerical representation refers to the possibility of a
"translation of all existing media into numerical data accessible through
computers" (20). A film, an image, or a sound can be manipulated on a
computer without regard to their original format (for example through cut
and past operations), since it is stored in digital code; as soon as an
old media object (such as a photograph or a book page) is scanned/coded in
numerical form it enters the logic of new media.  Modularity and
automation point to the fact that when composed into a new media object,
data items retain their distinct, original structure.  Think of a website:
Its content is distributed over a database, with images, sounds, and text
usually being stored in different 'folders.' A Website is then assembled
automatically by a programmed HTML file that 'calls up' the modules - in
fact, if a page has several frames and works with 'dynamical' content (a
Website that requires a user log-in, for example), the content modules are
probably even stored on different computers.  So much for the
deconstruction of new media objects: Starting at a higher, metaphorical
level, all modules are equal; on a lower level, all modules are
hierarchical, since they are organised in a system of hierarchical
folders; on the lowest level, the modules again become 'flattened out'
into a stream of binary code.  New media, then, essentially remain open to
changes.  Old media, of course, is not put together on user request
(except in a metaphorical way) - all copies of a book look the same, and
an illustration cannot vanish, or be cut, changed, and later inserted
again.  "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. Bakhtin (Bakhtin 1981: 17).  As a closed
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, thus books as old media objects can be read
as a sedimented strategy for unification and closure of a content that is
divergent, or antagonistic, whereas new media objects remain open and
liquid.  Any political interpretation will then have to take into account
the module codes and the form in which they are remixed.

The most important principle of new media, for Manovich, is transcoding.
Fredric Jameson describes this aspect 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, of course, transcoding is not a strategic invention but
rather the everyday operation "to translate something into another format"
(Manovich 2001: 47).  But Manovich takes the concept of transcoding
further, suggesting that, in the last instance, the socio-political sphere
and computer culture are being transcoded when "cultural categories and
concepts are substituted (...) by new ones that derive from the computer's
ontology, epistemology and pragmatics" (47). New media logic transforms
everyday culture in many ways - think of the useless, interface-like
forward/back-buttons that have entered contemporary graphic design.  On a
higher level, we are browsing through a cultural catalogue to chose
modular clothes, music, friends, or food to copy and paste these things
into our lives - we start seeing the world around us as a database (it is
no wonder that Kittlerian heavyweight media theory has started to advance
the concept of /Kulturtechnik/ again).  Furthermore, the principle of
transcoding, as has often been suggested throughout the last ten years or
so, holds some new implications for authorship.  In the Language of New
Media, Manovich tries to grasp this be referring to the figure of the DJ:  
Programming a new media objects seems to be something like the record
mixing of the DJ in modern musical culture (many DJs prove this logic when
stopping to work with analog media at all to employ notebooks for their
sets).  The German Connex I/O project (http://www.c-io.de) has taken this
up and developed the concept of the text jockey (TJ), but in my mind, such
metaphors of the DJ/TJ largely remain sketchy.  I would rather put forward
an additional principle of new media to understand the different role of
authorship in new media objects more clearly: instability.  As I have said
above, I regard a book as a sedimented strategy for closure of a divergent
socio-political content, so what happens if content and strategy are not
sedimented but modular and liquid?  Doesn't the author then have to juggle
with instable objects that can at best temporarily forced into a coherent
form?  And what happens if there are multiple authors?  Authorship, in my
mind, then generally becomes a matter of coping with unstable links and
programs.  In a nutshell, the computer can be regarded as a desiring
machine, so authorship becomes charged with intimacy or a closeness that
can never be fully attained.  One of the most obvious illustrations of
instability as a sixth principle of new media are the characteristics of
pornography on the internet: Similar to the early stages of other cultural
technologies such as film, there is a fascination with the indexical in
so-called 'adult entertainment' chat rooms ("Are you masculine or
feminine?" is the first questions asked in any conversation), but at the
same time the indexical is heavily disturbed by the instability of
technology - the images are grainy and Web cams deliver a slow, 'thumb
cinema'-like picture quality, for instance.  This is where the other five
principles come in to oppose, if combined with instability, the
fascination with the indexical in old media objects: Everyone seeks to be
close to everyone through the machine, even if that remains an empty
gesture in the last instance (this has been called the 'desire for the
real simulation'). Furthermore, the telematic aspect of Web pornography
can be a way to interpret new media socio-politically: The discourse about
intimacy or closeness in the directing of another person via chat and the
fascination if the person did what one told her to do (Web cam feedback)
also highlights the impossibility of attaining stable links and thus the
impossibility of the fullness of politico-social relationships - and the
ongoing desire to nevertheless /connect/.  To finally come full cycle in
my argument, even the communities of hypertext authors can be read as
imagined desiring communities.  New media authorship, then, is a kind of
authorship that takes place at the within an environment of unstable


Henning Ziegler

New article:
"The Digital Cowboys - Hackers as Imagined Communities"
in NMEDIAC, The Journal of New Media & Culture, Summer 2002

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