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Ken Jordan on Fri, 14 Jun 2002 20:50:54 +0200 (CEST)

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Ken Jordan
(2 of 4)

[Note: This is part 2 of a paper-in-progress that grew out of my
collaboration with Randall Packer, Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual
Reality (W.W. Norton, 2001, and on ArtMusuem.Net). Part 1 proposed a
definition of digital multimedia based on five core characteristics.
Comments are welcome.]

2. Microscopes and Telescopes

One reason that digital media have resisted definition to date is that
they cannot be adequately described by their materials. Bits of data are
elusive things. Because those bits of data are being recombined in media
objects through an endless variety of devices, using a constantly
expanding range of interfaces, it is a challenge to describe this emerging
medium as you would describe traditional forms, such as theater or music.
Theater is something that happens on a stage in front of an audience.
Music is the organized shaping of sound for esthetic purposes. But new
media can come at you through the Web, CD-ROMs, kiosks, CAVE's or other
virtual environments, among a seemingly endless string of delivery
systems. New interfaces are perpetually in development; many more devices
are yet to come.

When we began our project four years ago, Randall Packer and I did not
have the benefit of Lev Manovich's landmark book, The Language of New
Media [1]. Lev, grappling with similar questions, chose an instructive
though different route toward an answer. One notable aspect of this new
medium is how it can be accurately described in many ways -- like an
elephant by a group of blind men -- and that different definitions need
not conflict with one another. (In fact, Lev's definition and ours are
likely complementary.) This is a consequence of the new medium having
encompassed within it three distinct traditions: the technology of wired
communications, the legacy of modern media forms, and the history of
automated computational devices. New media is the grandchild of the
telegraph, the photograph, and the Difference Engine. It is an offspring
of unlike disciplines that can sustain within itself the legacy discourses
of its constituent parts. Communications theory, art theory, computer
design, issues of governance and regulation, telecommunications business
practice, media business practice -- these are among the intellectual
threads that remain relevant. Which only adds to the challenge of

Lev's approach is to look past the delivery devices to the medium's
substrata. He focuses on the essential elements that combine to constitute
digital media -- the ones and zeros, the bits -- and the specific ways
that the programming of these elements leads to new forms of personal
expression. In the chapter of this book titled "What Is New Media?" he
proposes five principles that determine how bits are programmed to become
media objects. First he establishes that new media objects, ultimately,
are "numerical representations." This, he writes, has two consequences:
(1) that a "new media object can be described formally (mathematically);"
and (2) that a "new media object is subject to algorithmic manipulation."
He then presents four methods by which this manipulation takes place:
modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding. These categories
capture the range of options a programmer has while determining how best
to arrange and present bits from a database.

The crucial point for Lev, which he emphasizes with italics, is that
"media becomes programmable." [2] Certainly, there are esthetic and social
consequences to the fact that we can now shape all media, in an endless
variety of formal presentations, from the same fundamental stuff. Ones and
zeros give us the opportunity to recast the same content in a multitude of
skins, each as an unique experience in itself. At the same time, our
entire media record is being digitized, with implications that are only
beginning to be addressed. Programmability introduces a potential for
dynamic forms of expression that were inconceivable before the computer.
But what guarantees that this potential will be tapped?

This is where Lev's approach has its limitations (as does every attempt at
definition, including ours). As technology progresses, and all media forms
get digitized and are indexed as programmable bits in databases --
including text, music, images, video, etc. -- the distinction between the
dominant forms of traditional media and the new forms enabled by digital
technology becomes blurry. Simply because data is programmable does not
guarantee that the manner of its presentation will significantly diverge
from traditional, pre-digital media. The computer is increasingly
effective at mimicking familiar forms. The grand possibilities offered by
digital media could conceivably remain latent, never adequately programmed
into its popular implementation.

Already we can see how economic forces generously reward the creation of
software programs that present the most convincing replicas of 20th
century media (effectively maintaining the current business models of the
global media giants), while challenges to the media industry status-quo
face hurdle after hurdle.

When Moby Dick is delivered to your PDA, does that make it a work of new
media? While the delivery system might be of 21st century vintage, the
work itself -- the words of Melville -- remains stubbornly of the 19th. If
it is relevant that the novel has been saved in digital form at one time
or another during the production and distribution process, then the copy
of Moby Dick now on my bookshelf should also be considered new media,
because the pages of my paperback edition were typeset on a computer.
Digital production has been standard in book publishing for more than a
decade. Some might say that the critical difference is the surface
material the words actually appear on at the end of the
production/distribution process; if the words are printed on paper then
it's old media, but if the words appear on a screen it becomes new media.
Today, certainly, the difference between the two is significant. But what
about in twenty years, or sooner, when the technological challenge of
electronic paper has been met, and all texts are read on digital devices
with pages that effectively replicate today's hardcover book?

Focusing on the programmability of bits does not in itself sufficiently
address the need for a critical framework that distinguishes between
digital facsimiles that mimic the experience of pre-digital media, and
emerging media experiences that are uniquely digital. It is part of the
discourse, but only part. Why does this matter? Because the specific
implementation of digital media is still in play. If the public is
satisfied by so-called new media that does no more than replicate the old,
than we will have missed an extraordinary opportunity to enhance our tools
for communication.

Programming is a method for setting rules that enables specific
manipulations of data toward the achievement of a narrowly defined range
of objectives. It is the process of putting a process in place, in order
to encourage information to behave in a particular way. What objectives
will programmers of digital multimedia be permitted to achieve by the
corporate and governmental gatekeepers who will determine the widespread
implementation of new media forms? Which particular manipulations will be
available to the mainstream, and which will be effectively disallowed? It
is too soon to say.

Our attempt at a definition began from the opposite direction than Lev's.
We started by considering the user experience, and identifying the types
of behavior that digital media enable -- particularly those that are less
available, or unavailable, in other media forms. We thought less about how
bits are programmed to constitute a computer-based artwork, than about how
the user is engaged by the new media experience. Rather than using a
microscope to dissect the atomic structure of the digital object, we
turned a telescope to the night sky of new media to search for patterns of
activity. With a telescope trained on the historic work of pioneering
engineers and artists, clear patterns do indeed emerge.

[1] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media [Cambridge: MIT Press; 2001]

[2] ibid, p. 27

Ken Jordan
ken {AT} kenjordan.tv

"Be as if." - Andrew Boyd 

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