The Language of New Media

By Lev Manovich. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 354 pp.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Published in Common Knowledge 9. 2, 2003

Artist, theorist, trained mathematician, Manovich has produced what is probably the most learned and exciting study of the way digital media work, to date. On the one hand, The Language of New Media charts the relationship between the new media and such precursors as the cinema. On the other, this study also focuses on the actual formal and material differences between the two. And it is itself an enormously creative and attractive book, elegantly produced and illustrated in the best MIT Press tradition.

Manovich’s prologue takes Dziga Vertov’s 1929 masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera as foreshadowing much that has become important in the language of digital media, especially the technique of spatial montage—that is, montage within a single shot. The superimposition of images and multiple screens, he argues, can overcome the indexical nature of film, creating a reality that exists nowhere outside the screen itself. But in the new computer media, montage works according to five specific principles: (1) numerical representation or digital code, (2) modularity, (3) automation, (4) variability, and (5) transcoding. A new media object can, to begin with, be described formally (mathematically) and is hence subject to algorithmic manipulation. More important, numerical representation or digitization means that all continuous data are transformed into discrete units—units that can be treated as separate entities even as they are combined. These discrete data, moreover, are “fractal” in that they have the same structure on different scales (principle #2). The combination of digitization and modularity is exemplified by the “fundamentally discrete and nonhierarchical organization of the Web,” an organization that can be automated (principle #3) and that can exist in many different versions (principle #4). Variability would not be possible without modularity, for the individual elements maintain their separate identities and can be assembled into numerous sequences. And, finally, structure, in the new computer interface, depends upon what Manovich calls “cultural transcoding” (principle #5): it “follows the established convention of the computer’s organization of data”—e.g., lists, records, and arrays. In this sense, the computer thus initiates a process of cultural reconceptualization: to a certain extent, it controls form, not vice versa.

Having articulated these basic principles of the language of new media, Manovich does a turnabout and puts into question many of the current truisms about the new media; for example, that it is interactive and that the user becomes the coauthor of the work. In a series of dazzling chapters, Manovich explores the “myth of the digital” as well as its power, the failure, for example, of most websites to use spatial montage successfully. Linear thinking, he suggests, dies hard. All in all, then, this is a wonderfully imaginative but also startlingly realistic treatment of the hyperreal. The author, a professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, also has a fascinating website that will introduce readers to further illuminating ideas.