Computable Culture and the Closure of the Media Paradigm

Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media

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. Any one who wants to think clearly about the cultural implications of the digital mutation should read Lev Manovich's new book, . 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; 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. leads its reader to confront what is strange yet familiar, that is uncanny, about the computable culture we have begun to inhabit.

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 through various vantage points: the history of technical culture (J. David Bolter), hypertext (Landow), narrative (Janet Murray), architecture (William J. Mitchell) virtual reality (Michael Heim), theatre (Brenda Laurel), and so on. From these books there has emerged a series of general traits ascribed to new media" "procedural," "participatory," and "spatial" (Murray); "discrete," "conventional," "finite" and "isolated" (Bolter); "liquid" (Mitchell), productive of "virtuality" (Hayles, Heim) or "cyberspace" (Gibson).

While these traits and terms have cogency within particular analyses, the attempt to generalize their use brings diminishing returns. Trying to isolate the essential traits of new media repeatedly courts two complementary problems: by ascribing to it traits in fact found in old media (for example, random access to packets of data is as old as the codex), one may overplay the novelty and difference of new media; or, by restricting attention to the aesthetic or phenomenological effects of new media products, one may fail to come to terms with the difference made by what lies at the heart of new media-a computer running software.

Manovich response to this dilemma is to develop an intrinsic list of the five principles of new media, a cluster of terms that specify the techniques and operations of a computer running software.

  1. First, through numerical representation, a new object can be described formally (mathematically), and subject to algorithmic manipulation: "in short, media becomes programmable."(27)
  2. Second, new media objects have modularity at the level of representation and at the level of code. Thus, new media objects like a digital film or a web page are composed from an assemblage of elements-images, sounds, shapes, or behaviors-that sustain their separate identity, and can be operated upon separately, without rendering the rest of the assemblage unusable.
  3. Thirdly, numerical coding and modularity "allow for the automation of many operations involved in media creation, manipulation, and access." (32) Whether computers are targeting weapons or generating web pages on the fly, automation wins the speed that is the fulcrum of computer "power."
  4. Fourthly, while old media depended upon an original construction of an object that could then be exactly reproduced (for example as printed book or photograph), new media is characterized by variability. Thus, browsers and word processors allow user defined parameters and databases allow selective search sensitive views (37-38).
  5. Finally, new media finds itself at the center of the "transcoding" between the layers of the computer and the layers of culture. (46) In new media lingo, to "transcode something is to translate it into another format."(47) Manovich makes the strong claim that the "computerization of culture gradually accomplishes similar transcoding in relation to all cultural categories and subjects."(47)

These admittedly cumbersome five principles offer a common sense way to specify the capacities and tendencies of that new "universal media machine" (69), the computer running software: computers use numerical representation and modularity so as to automate functions and offer variability within the media objects. These four traits of computer based media helps to win its broader social effect, a "transcoding" between computer and culture, so we begin to inhabit the new forms of a computable culture. These general tendencies of a computer running software are what Manovich explores in the rest of the book. Manovich's strategy is to interpret each 'level' of the human engagement with computer software: the "operating system" and the human-computer interface (chapter 2); operations like "selection," "compositing," and "teleaction" (chapter 3); the "illusions" created by computer based image making through "synthetic realism" or virtual reality (chapter 4); the distinct new genres, the "database" and "navigable space" (chapter 5); and finally, the dislocations worked by new media upon 20th century, cinema (chapter 6).

Manovich's topology of new media allows him to "touch" upon more of the many constituents of computable media, than any other critic I have read. The "language" of his title suggests that the computer, as the new universal media machine, is producing new discourses and new terms, and thus a new "language" in the strong sense of post-structuralism.

Although Manovich's book takes "new media" as its object, there is much in his book to suggest that computable culture unsettles the media paradigm introduced by Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s. In The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man (1962) and Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (1964), McLuhan introduced a set of terms and concepts that defined media studies. Marshall McLuhan's invention of modern media theory depended upon three related ideas.

First, he focuses upon the centrality of the physical medium of communication, and insists upon the profound mutual imprecation of medium (the material substrate of the symbolic expression) and the "message" or meaning (ideas, ideology, plausible genres, etc.) Thus the slogan, "the medium is the message". Second, by emphasizing the way the physical contours of a medium conditions production, use and experience of media, McLuhan shifts attention from meaning to practice, from what media do in the mind to how bodies dispose themselves while communicating. Thus the transformation of the first slogan into its somatic extension: "the medium is the massage."(McLuhan and Fiore, 1967) Thirdly, McLuhan's approach to media encourages a broadly comparative study of media: media as different as speech, manuscript, print, radio and television can be compared with each other as to their defining traits and across their long histories.

McLuhan's approach has been exposed to withering critique-for its central premise that (the) media (environment) determines (human) culture, for its facile anecdotal "probes" of media history, and for its quasi religious belief that electronic media can restore an earlier time of intuitive, embodied communication. Although McLuhan's writings offer a particularly ecstatic and credulous version of what Armand Matterlart calls "the ideology of communication" (The Invention of Communication, 1996, xi), any historian of media who accepts the centrality of the category "media" inherits and extends these three ideas. Manovich is a particularly effective practitioner of this sort of media history and analysis.

However, The Language of New Media, by the way it applies this framework to "new media", also suggests the limits of the media paradigm. For Lev Manovich allows us to grasp this fundamental fact about new media: that while computable cultural forms can be understood, for the sake of historical comparison, and in our study of modern media culture, as successors to earlier media forms, a computer running software produces digital code which simply is not a medium. Manovich points to the limitations of the comparative historical approach:

"[This perspective] cannot address the fundamental quality of new media that has no historical precedent-programmability. Comparing new media to print, photography, or television will never tell us the whole story. For although from one point of view new media is indeed another type of media, from another it is imply a particular type of computer data, something stored in files and databases, retrieved and sorted, run through algorithms and written to the output device. .... New media may look like media, but this is only the surface."(47-48)

The most casual acquaintance with the history of the computer suggests the relative autonomy of computable information from its media "surface." Over sixty years of development, the information within the computer is stored on computer cards, magnetic tape, floppy disks and hard drive media, and the silicon chip (as RAM, ROM, and bubble memory).

The mobility of information encoded in digital form makes the objects of media study waver. In fact one of new media's crucial traits is the way it eludes bondage to any medium. How is one to conceptualize this different system, so we grasp how "new media" simply is not a medium, but (perhaps) a species of a-media? Soon after the passage quoted above, Manovich suggests a closure of the media paradigm: "From media studies, we move to something that can be called 'software studies"-from media theory to software theory.(italics Manovich)". Although The Language of New Media is not written from a place beyond media study and media theory, this book does unfold the logic of a movement beyond the media paradigm toward one based on the great underlying fact that software is what is new about new media.


Why software theory? A computer and its software are much more intimately and essentially co-implicated with one another than a book and its written content, a television and its program. In fact, a computer scientist would be correct to point out that the phrase I've been using-- "a computer running software"-is tautological. From the first mathematical theorization of the computer as a "universal machine" by Alan Turing, and Turing's subsequent realization of the an early (base 10) computer, the "Bombe," built to decipher the code produced by the German Enigma machine in WWII (Singh, Code Book, Hodges, Alan Turing: the Enigma), to Von Neumann's first designs for the computer after the war, computers receive their essential character from the software they do not just run but which they run on.

When compared with the earlier analog computing devices used to point weapons and automate machinery during World War II, the flexibility and power of the computer running software comes from the way data and the program are loaded into memory at the same time.(Bolter, 47-49; Turing, 1950, 436-442), meaning that the computer, unlike the machine, could be reconfigured by the changes introduced at the level of software. Thus a relatively immaterial thing-software-invades and dematerializes its supposedly hard home, what is conventionally called "hardware" but what we sometimes mistakenly identified as "the computer." From the beginning of computing, even the hardest components of design-the arrangement of circuits and vacuum tubes, the code embedded on read-only memory, and microprocessors made of silicon-were designed to embed "logic blocks" (like "and," "or," invert") and algorithms first expressed as software. (Hillis, The Pattern in the Stone, 21-38) In other words, there is a very real sense in which the computer is software all the way down.

How can we begin to think the difference for media made by software? Manovich shows how software produces uncanny effects upon the cultural and aesthetic sphere it operates within, for example, by challenging the underlying assumptions of the realist project. The long Western commitment to mimesis as a pathway to truth has gained expression in the development of visual technologies-from the linear perspective of painting to photography to film-that win visual fidelity for the image. Computers have been used to develop new and more powerful forms of realism. However, while the algorithms embedded in Adobe Photoshop allow a photographer to correct a photograph, they also simplify the production of simulations of what was never photographed. The autonomy from any prior "real" object undermines the indexical function of photography and cinema.(295) Digital special effects technologies have enabled Hollywood films to create visually believable representations of the impossible.

Terminator 2

For example, in Terminator 2 an ordinary policeman seems to morph into a "metal man." Manovich notes that digital special effects like "metal man" are made possible by the software algorithms that migrate from computer science journals to software programs.

Manovich notes that images supported by software turn out to be fundamentally different than the traditional images they can simulate. In order to fake photorealism, computer software does not enrich but instead downgrades the synthetic image so that we experience it as like a photo: it is given the blur, graininess, and texture of the photographic image. We may think of these computer-generated images as inferior to the photographs, but Manovich notes, "in fact, they are too perfect. But beyond that we can also say that, paradoxically, they are also too real." (202)

The synthetic image is free of the limitations of both human and camera vision. It can have unlimited resolution and an unlimited level of detail. It is free of the depth-of-field effect, this inevitable consequence of the lens, so everything is in focus. ...From the point of view of human vision, it is hyperreal. And yet, it is completely realistic. The synthetic is the result of a different, more perfect than human, vision. Whose vision is it? It is the vision of a computer, a cyborg, an automatic missile. ...Synthetic computer-generated imagery is not an inferior representation of our reality, but a realistic representation of a different reality.

Lev Manovich, The Language of New Medoa (202)

Manovich here gives a trenchant s/f turn to his argument. If we unmoor what is being done from its arbitrary referent (here photorealism as a functional stand-in for "reality"), we can see the uncanny difference of the new digital image: it can go beyond the constraints of social conventions, aesthetic traditions, and even the human perceptual apparatus. The computer running software can serve the old ideals of visual realism, but it can also do very different things. Thus In Terminator 2, the "reflection mapping algorithm" give "metal man" a highly unrealistic special effect: a hyper-reflective body. In this way, the 'metal man' of T2 provides a visual analog of the uncanny perfection, the infinite plasticity, the soft hardness of the computer-generated image as it seems to leap out of the limitations of the film medium itself.

Terminator 2

T2 offers a vivid example of software's uncanny effects within an old medium. It also offers an example of the savvy and well-reasoned analysis Manovich offers to cultural critics who celebrate the disembodied transcendence of "cyberspace." Manovich has found a way, in The Language of New Media, to balance the momentum and staying power of traditionally embodied media forms (like the book, cinema, the screen) with a sustained analysis of what enables the production, networked distribution, and use of 'new' media: the computer running software.

William B. Warner is Professor of English, University of California at Santa Barbara and Director of the Digital Cultures Project. The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich, MIT Press, March 2001 ISBN 0-262-13374-1 352 pp., 55 illus. $34.95/£23.95 (CLOTH) (William B. Warner)