Manovich (2001) The Language of New Media

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Argument – Manovich maps out parameters to define what new media is, what distinguishes it from old media, how it developed out of other media forms, and how it can be studied.  Throughout the book he situates new media in relation to older media forms with emphasis on the similarities between old and new and on the particular parallels between cinema and new media.  New media can  be studied using film theory as the “key conceptual lens” (pg 9).


No one studied film at the point when it was just emerging so historians have to reconstruct the past to determine the impact of film on culture and society.  To ensure the history of new media isn’t lost, Manovich documents new media at the moment it is emerging.  Instead of a detailed history of new media culminating in speculations about the future, this book is a study of the present.  It is both a record and a theory of new media.

Why “Language”? – Most histories of new media focus on sociological, political and economic analyses.  This book is different.  It focuses instead on “the emergent conventions, recurrent design patterns and key forms” (pg. 12) of new media which he has grouped together using the term “language.”

Ch. 1. What is New Media?

How can we map out the effects of new media on society (the same way the printing press fundamentally altered communication)?  Manovich notes five principles or trends of new media that are present in most new media objects, which “should be considered not as absolute laws but rather as general tendencies of a culture undergoing computerization” (p. 27).  These trends are shaping the development of new media over time. Many of these characteristics align with the shift from an industrial to post-industrial economy.

  1. Numerical Representation – They are composed of digital code.  Therefore, math functions and algorithms can be applied to them.
  2. Modularity – They are composed of discrete samples (pixels, characters) that can be combined while the original sample maintains its singular identity.
  3. Automation – Principle #1 and Principle #2 allow functions to be automated so that the computer can create or modify information with the click of a button (Ex. applying a filter in PhotoShop) or on the fly (generating web pages from a database)
  4. Variability – Principle #1 and Principle #2 mean that new media are not static or fixed.  Once a polaroid is printed it cannot be altered but new media can be continually refined.  Much of this varibility is automated such as web pages that are generated on the fly.
  5. Transcoding –  This is”the most substantial consequence of the computerization of media” (pg 45).  Old media are transferred into code. New media can be conceptualized as having two distinct layers: the cultural layer and the computer layer (p 46).  Both of these layers influence eachother.

What New Media is Not

Debunks common misconceptions about what is “new” about new media.  Many of the things considered unique about new media are already present in other cultural forms – particularly cinema. 1) Digital Representation, 2) Multimedia, 3) Random Access 4) Lossy Conversion 5) Unlimited Replicability and 6) Interactivity.

New media theory – Manovich calls for a “new stage in media theory,” where media studies is combined with software studies (pg 48).  This approach would merge computer science with the work of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan.

Ch. 2. The Interface (the operating system)

He theorizes that print, cinema and the human computer interfaces (GUI) provide the raw material for new media.

Ch. 3. The Operations (the applications)

Menus, Filters, plug-ins; Compositing; and Teleaction

Ch. 4. The Illusions (the appearance)

Realism, Illusion, Narrative and Interactivity

Ch.5. The Forms (how it is commonly used)

Database, Navigable Space

Ch. 6. What is Cinema?

History of the moving image.


This is one way to study new media but it is not the only way.  The book was written before the mass adoption of web 2.0 technologies so it no longer maps out the field, but it still makes important contributions to the history and development of new media and provides a “snapshot” of new media as it was understood at the turn of the century.





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