The Language of New Media – thoughts

This book was one of those on the recommended reading list and I thought I would read it sooner rather than later as we have just reviewed another of Manovich’s works last week (see here).

The book’s table of contents gives one a good overview of some of the key defining issues involved in digital media. But given that I know little about the subject save for age and personal experience, the book should help me build on the concepts that stood out from the Digital Revolution exhibition: immersion and interaction. It’s structure is more like a social science book – in fact I think that is what it is. Manovich defines his subject matter moving from principles through to key features and forms. From then on though he begins to analyse and hypothesise and this is where the book becomes really interesting.

What is New Media?

Principles Interface Screen & User Forms
Numerical RepresentationModularity




Cultural InterfacesPrinted Word



Representation v Control

Compositing & new montage typesTeleaction

Representation v Communication

Telepresence: illusion v Action




Distance and Aura


Manovich explains how he has come to entwine the two threads of digital and art and I enjoyed his review of photographic and computing history. He also notes the context where computer art is not on the art establishment’s horizon but clearly between 1985 and 1995 it becomes a recognised movement – Personal computers moved from production tools to universal media machines “data gloves”. But the author notes that the art isn’t pure – that is its form is both culturally influenced (he notes Gombrich and Barthes for this) as well as technologically – ie the means of production and how its used (its interfaces) act as representations that themselves hark back to earlier pre digital times.

Manovich makes lots of useful little observations in the book, like his section on montage and the point he makes about how digital compositing is often seamless and based on an aesthetic of continuity while historically montage was based on the opposite – ie visual, stylistic, semantic, and emotional dissonance between different elements. But for me the key point was less about immersion and interaction and more about temporality and mutability.

The first point is that new media, is inextricably time limited. Whereas other technologies like printing or casting left outputs even after the technology changed this is not so with digital work. Games and programmes only exist while the platforms are present for them to exist. For example I can’t open Ami Pro documents and can’t load Locoscript ones as my current software doesn’t allow it in the former case and the hardware doesn’t exist in the latter. So my outputs on those platforms don’t exist. I was reminded of this in the Digital archaeology part of the Digital Revolution.

The second point is about the variability of digital products that has really big implications for both art generally and me personally. For example, the lack of a physical presence of a digital image has a number of implications in terms of what it is and what it is used for. For some it’s a transient form of communication with no intention for any long term presence after it has serves its function. For example, when my son sends me a Facebook picture of him larking around at work the image is sent as a transient communication. Yet for others the web offers a platform where semi complete images can be shown ready to be sold to a buyer who will then use it to create whatever they desire to use it for. But its essential variability – or mutability – means that the product is only really complete as a product when it is manifested physically. For example, I regularly review the images on my website and if I see something that needs adjusting or I have a thought on improvement then I replace the image with a newly improved one. This can’t be achieved cheaply when printing and mounting images – and it’s in that complete and fixed form that the product is assuredly complete and finished.

Implications for my work
This has clear implications for my final project: do I accept – indeed embrace – its variability and transience and create a time limited product rather akin to a performance artist? Or do I create versions – both digital and physical of the same material adapted for particular media, purposes and audiences?

The issue also raised one about representation. For example, I have placed completed final project images on a web site as a way to summarising my MA work and showing outputs as distinct from work in progress that can be seen on this blog. Yet when I came to do this for the first time it threw up a clear distinction between two types of image that I will present.


This statement makes the point that the website shows images that I then might put to use and that such use might – will very likely – involve some adaptation of them. For example, if I printed them, hung them on walls, produced a book then I will take photos of those finished articles and place them on my website. This the images currently shown on the site are still very much base images of work in progress and simultaneously completed digital images in their own right.

There is a lot to think about….



Manovich L. (2001) The Language of New Media, MIT Press


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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