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I just read the most excellent review of Manovich’s The Language of New Media; the review is by Bill Warner.  A lot of what Bill says about this book dovetails with some things I’ve been thinking about lately.

First, I have been incredibly amazed, in a dumb sort of way, by the spirit / body connection in computers: I just can’t see how turning on a switch makes a program execute, a program that will in turn operate little on / off switches on a microchip via 0s and 1s.  Ira said in response to this problem that it’s really no more amazing than what happens when you turn on a light switch.  Here is a relevant passage from Manovich that Warner quotes and explicates:

In retrospect, the shift from a material object to a signal accomplished by electronic technologies represents a fundamental conceptual step towards computer media.  In contrast to a permanent imprint in some material, a signal can be modified in real time by passing it through a filter or filters . . . . [A]n electronic filter can modify the signal all at once . . . .  [A]n electronic signal does not have a singular identity — a particular qualitatively different state from all other possible states. . . .  In contrast to a material object, the electronic signal is essentially mutable. . . . This mutability of electronic media is just one step away from the ‘variability’ of new media. . . . Put differently, in the progression from material object to electronic signal to computer media, the first shift is more radical than the second.  (132-133)

Here is the really interesting part, though, about the shift from electronic mutability to computer variability: the change happens through software.  I remember sitting in my office with a tech guy right after getting my second laptop, trying and trying to figure out why we couldn’t get any sound — and then I found a volume button on the side of the machine.  My new laptop has no such button.  Here is Warner explaining and quoting Manovich:

The increase in range of variation in the digital is accounted for by two factgors: “modern digital computers separate hardware and software” (so for example, changing the volume will just be a software change) and second, “because an object is now represented by numbers, that is, it has become computer data that can be modified by software.  In short a media object becomes ‘soft’ — with all the implications contained in this metaphor” (133).  The mutability of TV (with hue, brightness, vertical hold, etc.) becomes the much wider range of variability for display of a page in a browser window.  (Warner 11).

Both Warner and Manovich argue that what’s significant about the new media is not in fact computers but computers-running-software, that it really doesn’t matter what media instantiates the software at all.  Here’s Manovicth:

[T]he fundamental quality of new media that has no historical precedent [is] 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 simply a particular type of computer data, something stored in files and databases, retrieved and sorted, run through algorithms and written to the output device.  That the data represent pixels and that this device happens to be an output screen is beside the point. . . .  New media may look like media, but this is only the surface.  (47-48; qtd. Warner 14)

That smacks of idealism and transcendence: code is spirit, and matter / media doesn’t matter at all.  But somehow they are both trying to avoid that trend, analyzed so well by N. Katherine Hayles in her posthuman book.  I’m not sure how, but here is a paragraph in Warner dealing with the problem:

Although the phrase “the computer running software” is redundant, it offers a way to emphasize the way a relatively immaterial thing — software — invades and dematerializes its supposedly hard home, what is conventionally called “hardware” but what we sometimes mistakenly identify as “the computer.”  This is a mistake, not just because hardware needs software the way, by analogy, we might say that the human body needs the communications media of neurons, enzymes and electric signals as a condition of life.  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.  In other words, there is a very real sense in which the computer is software all the way down.

A chapter of Manovich’s book that Warner spends a lot of time analyzing is called “Selection,” and it is about how software has made creating into a process of selecting and filtering — a fettering of creativity that may be akin to transforming a writer to a mere reader or worse, critic, assembler of other people’s words into sentences and ideas (she wrote nervously, looking away from her own postings).  This reminds me of Maeda’s attack on the new software programs for programming, as well as Ira’s refusal to let his Flash students click on any of the menu options in the “Actions” portion of Flash (he makes them write out the action script by hand).


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