Henning Ziegler on Sun, 14 Jul 2002 12:00:13 +0200 (CEST)

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[rohrpost] Hypertext [part 3 of 5]

[This is part 3 of a 5 part paper, comments or corrections are appreciated]

3  A Digital Materialist View of New Media

Henning Ziegler

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 talking now for quite some length about new media objects, the cultural interface, or cyberspace without describing the formal structures
of those concepts.  Lev Manovich’s recent The Language of New Media is one of the few books with an emphasis on what the author calls ‘digital
materialism:’ “Rather than imposing some a priori theory from above, I build a theory of new media from the ground up.  I scrutinize the principles of
computer hardware and software and the operations involved in creating cultural objects on a computer to uncover a new cultural logic at work”
(Manovich 2001: 10).  Manovich’s approach, then, is strikingly similar to Jameson’s in that he establishes a ‘digital materialist’ reading while at the
same time he deconstructs the ‘essence’ behind new media objects.  This move also makes him refraining from speculating about the future of new
media in favor of making ‘informed guesses’ at the most, since cyberspeculation is typically found in texts that work under the assumption of a ‘real
meaning’ of cyberspace (recall Stenger’s “space for collective restoration and for peace”).  So what sets new media objects formally apart from old
media objects?

	First of all, the term ‘object’ needs some explanation.  ‘Object’ in Manovich’s use reaches beyond new media in that it designates that
various kinds of cultural expressions that share a similar formal logic: books, CD-ROMs, hypertexts, computer programs, video games, 3D-
environments, and the like.  Describing something as a ‘new media object’ then emphasizes “the general principles of new media that hold true
across all media types, all forms of organization, and all scales” while keeping in mind that a new media object is a subset of cultural objects in
general (14).  Apart from this, the term ‘object’ invokes the computer lingo of ‘object-oriented programming’ (Java) and the Object Linking and
Embedding (OLE) technology in Microsoft Office.  New media objects as opposed to old media share five principles: The first one is numerical
representation, refering to the possible  “translation of all existing media into numerical data accessible through computers” (20).  A film, a
photograph, or a sound as digital code can be manipulated on a computer without regard to their orginal format (for example with cut and past
operations).  Modularity points to the fact that once composed into a new media object, smaller modules retain their original structure—the distinct
elements or modules of a website, for example (images, movies, sounds, applets, or texts), retain their independent edibility.  A third principle,
automation, means that the modular structure of numerical code allows “for the automation of many operations involved in media creation,
manipulation, and access” (32).  Generally then, new media objects are liquid: their digital structure continues to be variable, even if they exist as fully-
fleged artwork.  The most important principle of new media for Manovich, however, is transcoding, which Fredric Jameson describes 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, transcoding is not an invention but rather the
everyday operation “to translate something into another format” (Manovich 2001: 47).  The concept then calls to mind that new media are merely ‘on
the surface,’ underneath them is “computer ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics” (46).  For Manovich, though, invoking this concept of computer
culture means that “cultural categories and concepts are substituted (...) by new ones that derive from the computer’s ontology, epistemology and
pragmatics” (47).  The new media logic transforms everyday culture—think of the interface-like elements that enter into contemporary graphic design
(SONY billboard advertisements) or into old media formats such as television (the Windows-style redesign of the most prominent German TV news).

	A concept that perhaps best highlights the difference between old and new media is the idea of distributed content, and the corresponding
characteristics of openness or closure.  “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. Bakthin about the novel (Bakhtin
1981: 17).  As a finished 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.  Formally, then, books as old media objects can be read as a strategy for unification and closure of a
content that is divergent, or antagonistic, whereas new media objects remain variable or liquid, as Manovich’s principle suggests.  Think of a website:
Its content is distributed over a database; the images are usually in one ‘folder,’ audio in others.  The page is assembled automatically by a
programmed HTML file that ‘calls up’ the modules from their distributed locations.  In a simple HTML page, only objects that are not the main textual
content are located in different files or even on different computers in a network, and if the pages work with dynamically created content, everything
except for the page layout lies somewhere else.  Note that all links to modules (and Web hyperlinks in general) are really equal, the content is
‘flattened out,’ so if you try to ‘deconstruct’ a website, each element retains its original structure—it had been structurally deconstructed/modular from
the beginning (The work of Derrida presupposed the original unity of the book as old media object).

	New media objects then also hold different implications for authorship than old media do.  Since many new media objects are organized
around the logic of the database, making a new media objects becomes something akin to the operations of the DJ in modern musical culture.  A
database in computer language is “a structured collection of data;” in a more general sense, though, databases are “collections of individual items,
with every item possessing the same significance as any other” (Manovich 2001: 218).  The DJ/new media author selects elements from a database
and composes them into a new media object.  Interestingly, this DJ authorship that is based on the database as a ‘symbolic form’ transcodes
computer epistemology into our cultural behavior of everyday life: as Manovich has rightly pointed out, we browse through a cultural catalogue to
chose modular clothes, music, friends, food, and on top of that we ‘copy and paste’ Eastern religion into our lives—no wonder we start seeing the
world around us as a database.  Having arrived at this implication, then, it seems clear to me that a ‘cultural composite’ way of living readily lends
itself to a political reading.  So in the next chapter, I’ll attempt to interpret some of the general structural aspects of new media objects that I’ve talked
about so far in social or political terms.

[end of part 3]

Henning Ziegler, Berlin

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