Lev Manovich on Mon, 28 Nov 2005 23:03:07 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> We Have Never Been Modular

Lev Manovich

We Have Never Been Modular

[ note: the definitions of terms which appear in quotes in this text are
from en.wikipedia.org ]

Thanks to everybody who commented on my text "Remix and Remixability" (November
16, 2005).  It was provoked by reading about web 2.0 and all the exitement and
hype (as always) around it, so indeed I am "following the mainstream view" in
certain ways. But I would like to make it clear that ultimately we are talking
about something which does not just apply to RSS, social bookmarking, or Web
Services.  We are talking about the logic of modularity which extends beoynd the
Web and digital culture.

Modularity has been the key principle of modern mass production. Mass production
is possible because of the standarisation of parts and how they fit with each
other - i.e. modularity. Although there are historical precedents for mass
production, until twentieth cenrtuy they have separate histroical cases. But soon
after Ford installs first moving assembly lines at his factory in 1913, others
follow, and soon modularity permuates most areas of modern society. ("An assembly
line is a manufacturing process in which interchangeable parts are added to a
product in a sequential manner to create an end product.") Most products we use
are mass produced, which means they are modular, i.e. they consist from
standardised mass produced parts which fit together in standardised way. Moderns
also applied modulary principle outside of factory. For instance, already in 1932
-- longe before IKEA and Logo sets -- belgian designer Louis Herman De Kornick
developed first modular furniture suitable for smaller council flats being built
at the time.

Today we are still leaving in an era of mass production and mass modularity, and
globalisation and outsourcing only strengthen this logic. One commonly evoked
characteristic of globalisation is greater connnectivity -- places, systems,
countries, organisations etc, becomig connected in more and more ways. Although
there are ways to connect things and processes without standardizing and
modularizing them -- and the further development of such mechanisms is probably
essential if we ever want to move beyond all the grim consequences of living in a
standardized modular world produced by the twentieth century -- for now it is much
easier just to go ahead and apply the twentieth century logic. Because society is
so used to it, its not even thought of as one option among others.

Last week I was at a Design Brussels event where the designer Jerszy Seymour
speculated that once Rapid Manufacturing systems become advanced, cheap and easy,
this will give designers in Europe a hope for survival. Today, as soon as some
design becomes succesful, a company wants to produce it in large quantities -- and
its production goes to China. Seymour suggested that when Rapid Manufacturing and
similar technologies would be installed locally, the designers can become their
own manufactures and everything can happen in one place. But obviously this will
not happen tomorrow, and its also not at all certain that Rapid Manufacturing will
ever be able to produce complete finsihed objects without any humans involved in
the process, whether its assembly, finishing, or quality control.

Of course, modularity principle did not stayed unchanged since the beginning of
mass production a hundred years ago. Think of just-in-time manufacturing,
just-in-time programing or the use of standardized containeres for shippment
around the world since the 1960s (over %90 of all goods in the world today are
shipped in these containers). The logic of modularity seems to be permuating more
layers of society than ever before, and computers -- which are great to keeping
track of numerous parts and coordinating their movements -- only help this

The logic of culture often runs behind the changes in economy -- so while
modularity has been the basis of modern industrial society since the early
twentiteh century, we only start seeing the modularity principle in cultural
production and distribution on a large scale in the last few decades. While Adorno
and Horkheimer were writing about "culture industry" already in the 1940s, it was
not then - and its not today - a true modern industry.[1] In some areas such as
production of Hollywood animated features or computer games we see more of the
factory logic at work with extensive division of labor.  In the case of software
enginnering (i.e. programming), software is put together to a large extent from
already available software modules - but this is done by individual programmers or
teams who often spend months or years on one project -- quite diffirent from Ford
production line assembling one identical car after another. In short, today
cultural modularity has not reached the systematic character of the industrial
standardisation circa 1913.

But this does not mean that modularity in contemporary culture simply lags behind
industrial modularity, responsible for mass production. Rather, cultural
modularity seems to be governed by a diffirent logic than industrial modularity.
On the one hand, "mass culture" is made possible by a complete industrial-type
modularity on the levels of packaging and distribution. In other words, all the
materials carriers of cultural content in the modern period have been standarised,
just as it was done in the production of all goods - from first photo and films
formats in the end of the nineteenth century to game catridges, DVDs, memory
cards, interchangeable camera lenses, etc. But the actual making of content was
never standardised in the same way.[2] So while mass culture involves putting
together new products -- fims, television programs, songs, games -- from a limited
repertoir of themes, narratives, icons using a limited number of conventions, this
is done by the teams of human authors on a one by one basis. And whiile more
recently we see the trend toward the resuse of cultural assets in comercial
culture, i.e. media franchising -- characters, settings, icons which appear not in
one but a whole range of cultural products -- film sequals, computer games, theme
parks, toys, etc. -- this does not seem to change the basic "pre-industrial" logic
of the production process) For Adorno, this individual character of each product
is part of the ideology of mass culture: "Each product affects an individual air;
individuality itself serves to reinforce ideology, in so far as the illusion is
conjured up that the completely reified and mediated is a sanctuary from immediacy
and life."[3]

On the other hand, what seems to be happening is that the "users" themselves have
been gradually "modularising" culture. In other words, modularity has been coming
into modern culture from the outside, so to speak, rather than being built-in, as
in industrial production. In the 1980s musicans start sampling already published
music; TV fans start sampling their favorite TV series to produce their own "slash
films," game fans start creating new game levels and all other kinds of game
modifications. (Mods "can include new items, weapons, characters, enemies, models,
modes, textures, levels, and story lines.") And of course, from the verry
beginning of mass culture in early twentieth century, artists have immediately
starting sampling and remixing mass cultural products -- think of Kurt Schwitters,
collage and particularly photomontage practice which becomes popular right after
WWI among artists in Russia and Germany. This continued with Pop Art,
appropriation art, and video art.

Enter the computer. In The Language of New Media I named modularity as one of the
principles of computerised media. If before modularity principle was applied to
the packaging of cultural goods and raw media (photo stock, blank videotapes,
etc.), computerization modularizes culture on a structural level. Images are
broken into pixels; graphic designs, film and video are broken into layers.
Hypertext modularises text. Markup languages such as HTML and media formats such
as QuickTime and MPEG-7 modularise multimedia documents in general. We can talk
about what this modularisation already did to culture -- think of World Wide Web
as just one example - but this is a whole new conversation.

In short: in culture, we have been modular already for a long time already. But at
the same time, "we have never been modular" - which I think is a very good thing.

November 25, 2005

[1] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. The Culture Industry.
Enlightment as Mass Deception, 1947.

[2] In "Culture industry reconsidered," Adorno writes: "the expression "industry"
is not to be taken too literally. It refers to the standardization of the thing
itself =8B such as that of the Western, familiar to every movie-goer =8B and to
the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the
production process=8A it [culture industry] is industrial more in a sociological
sense, in the incorporation of industrial forms of organization even when nothing
is manufactured =8B as in the rationalization of office work =8B rather than in
the sense of anything really and actually produced by technological
rationality." Theodor W. Adorno, "Culture Industry Reconsidered," New German
Critique, 6, Fall 1975, pp. 12-19.

[3] Ibid.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net