Reading: Principles of New Media

the language of new media

Lev Manovich is an author of books on new media theory and professor in Computer Science, his research and teaching focuses on digital humanities, new media art and theory, and software studies.
His book The Language of New Media offers the first systematic and rigorous theory of new media. He places new media within the histories of visual and media cultures of the last few centuries. He discusses new media’s reliance on conventions of old media, such as the rectangular frame and mobile camera, and shows how new media works create the illusion of reality, address the viewer, and represent space. He also analyzes categories and forms unique to new media, such as interface and database. Manovich uses concepts from film theory, art history, literary theory, and computer science and also develops new theoretical constructs, such as cultural interface, spatial montage, and cinegratography.

In this assigned chapter Manovich presents the five principles that govern new media: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding.

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You can easily spot these features in pretty much all computer based artifacts, but can you think of instances of [digital] art that specifically and transparently investigate these principles?
Find a project from the websites below that relates to one of these principles and post a short blog post describing the project and how these issues are thematized and explored (add at least one image or video).

Here you can find some good sites covering digital art, dig deep into the archives, stuff made a few years ago can be still very relevant.
Creative Applications
Creative Applications Web links
Creators Project
Today and Tomorrow
Media Art Tube
This is colossal
Future Feeder
Art & Electronic Media
Digicult – software art
We make money not art


VinylVideo, a project from the late ’90s tackles the issue of transcoding by imagining vinyl records as supports for video material. A new kind of video aesthetic is made possible by this surreal technology: a new type of glitch, a different way of consuming audiovisual material and a new capabilities (e.g. scratching and accessing videos randomly).

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  1. christianmurphy

    Christian Murphy
    Principles of New Media – Response

    Lev Manovich writes about what is under the skin of the modern technology we utilize so frequently today. Though every child born after 2005 is fluent in searching the internet, the complexities of this relatively new frontier are not yet fully realized. His writing delves deeper into the behind the scenes of human computer interaction, adding a level of depth to the actions we as users take for granted in this computer driven society. With the constant development of new programs it can be confusing to learn your way around the computer, let alone understand how the programs accomplish the tasks we give them. Thankfully Manovich breaks down basic electronics into the differences between old computing, and the advances that are occurring with new media. By separating these into five principles, with 3-5 being dependent on the first two, he clarifies a breadth of knowledge.
    The five-step process begins with numerical representation; an analysis of the mathematics behind the functions computers process. This fundamental is the atom that makes up all the things we use computers to accomplish. Modularity is the second principle. It explains the interconnectivity between the different media types, and how they can be used across the board. These two principles build onto the third which is automation. Automation refers to the processes that computers can create or use themselves. Historically these programs have been simple algorithms, but with advances artificial intelligence is on the horizon. Automated intelligence or AI is the next step of computer programming, in which the computer is aware of the functions it’s creating and can react in real time to situations. Automation literally refers to computers automating themselves, so user time and effort is minimalized. Directly related to automation is variability. Variability relates to the multiple ways that code or information can be called on or found online. It also branches off into scalabilty or the fact that the same information can be presented in different detail, size or format. The main draw of variability is interconnecting new media in ways that would not have been initially thought of. Finally transcoding, which is the raw code behind everything we have online and the programs we run. Every bit of information that goes online is stored in this code and can be found again. Though it can be hard to find specific things using generic search engines, specialized search engines have the ability to find very specific results hidden in the deep web.
    Overall this writing was informative though somewhat convoluted. It was clearly written by someone not in touch with the arts, or art as new media. Here is a quote from the text, “. They also come with filters which can automatically modify an image, from creating simple variations of color to changing the whole image as though it was painted by Van Gog, Seurat or other brand-name artist.” When I read this I was appalled. Not only was “van Gogh” spelled incorrectly, there is no possible way that a manipulated image will ever be seen as the “fine art” created by the masters of old.

  2. jamieearnest

    This chapter that Manovich writes makes interesting points about what New Media seems to consist of, right down to the very core.
    The five principles he states that make up NM are Numerical Representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding.
    Using the descriptions of each principle provided by Manovich, it is easy to find examples of them in every day life in the technology that we use. For example, numerical representation is everywhere. An example of this that consumes most of the art world’s lives is Photoshop, or any Adobe program fro that matter. Yes, it is somewhat easy to use, but behind all of the surface, there is the numerical data behind it, algorithms that allow us to adjust the contrast, hue, and shape of photos. The numerical work and coding in the deep deep depths of photoshop programming is something that I couldn’t even begin to understand, but it is a part of new media art and I am choosing to take part in it when I use Photoshop or any other adobe program. Modularity, the second principle, also shows up in mostly everyone’s daily lives. An example of this could be the vector files made to be sent to a CNC router. So many different types of files make up this larger vector file that is then translated into something tangible. Numerical representation also takes place in the CNC router, as well as vector programs such as AutoCad or Rhinoceros. I think Manovich uses the perfect word for modularity: fractal. These files are like fractals based on the different information stored with each single file. Automation can also be applied to the example of photoshop, we can press a button and automatically all of the graininess is erased from the photo we are editing. Automation ties in with numerical representation as well as modularity. The last principle that Manovich discuses is the one of transcoding. This principle is the only one that seems to be a little more flexible and subjective than the rest. It refers to the interpretation of the ‘human touch’ in computational systems and the ‘computer touch’ in human terms. These two ‘touches’, according to Manovich, work together and both are needed for progressive development. The example that I relate this to is the user friendly company of Apple. They consider the human touch within the computer and both work together to create an easy, pristine, and technologically (as well as aesthetically) advanced piece of technology.

  3. nivethakannan

    Manovich explains the basic principles of new media art and many of them are things we already know – variability, the numbers behind graphics, and the fluidity of these media. However, Manovich presents it as a “new” media and assumes readers are not too familiar with the media (or at least he is very thorough and descriptive in his explanation of seemingly simple subjects like variability). This, I find, is a bit repetitive but overall very thorough. Some points he brings up are things I had known but never really looked at in detail. For example, Manovich describes how all the graphic media in computers are based on numbers. Because of these numbers and the interpretation of them by the computers, images may become distorted or changed.
    This also reminds me of my Graphic Media Management class- we recently learned about the beginning of the digital age of graphic media. Like Manovitch states, digital media was very liquid and fluid compared to traditional media. With digital media, it was easy for users to put images on top of each other. When the technology was discovered it changed graphic design forever. With new digital media, designers were able to use type, colors, and numerous images that would have taken way too long to add and mass produce by traditional means. I guess the relates back to the previous chapter we read- the fact that digital media has changed virtually everything.

  4. chentsch

    Manovich’s explanation of numerical representation, specifically the way that digital art can be sampled and broken down into a numerical sequence, reminded me of a video piece by Cory Arcangel. In his work, “Colors,” 2005, he uses Dennis Hopper’s movie “Colors,” and removes all but one line of pixels, letting each pixel fill the screen vertically. The result is a moving series of colors, changing with the movie, but only representing the one horizontal line of pixles. This piece came to mind as Manovich discussed the digitalization of “old media” to “new media” because “Colors” seems to be a commentary on this transition. The piece its self is derived from the transition between old and new media, and it requires the old to be new. Manovich explains the process of digitalization by writing: ” First, data is sampled, most often at regular intervals, such as the grid of pixels used to represent a digital image. Technically, a sample is defined as “a measurement made at a particular instant in space and time, according to a specified procedure.” This definition seemed to perfectly apply, and was able to give me a deeper understanding of “Colors.” Cory Arcangel has used the process of digitalization to create new work by creatively interpreting the definition. Rather than use digitalization to archive and preserve something, he has used the concept to totally change something and in doing so, present a new way to view something otherwise familiar.

  5. lisapark

    One of Manovich’s principles of new media is ‘Numerical Representation’ , his statement in particular 1.1. New media object can be described formally (mathematically). For instance an image or a shape can be described using a mathematical function, is able to be directly in conjunction to the Google Art Project (launched in 2011). The Google Art Project aims to bring artworks from galleries all over the world readily available for users to view online. Digitizing fine art is an important part of preserving old works. Documenting, storing and conserving artworks are all done using mathematical algorithms along with high-level photography. The main part of this system relies on state-of arts photographing equipment, one digital reproduction of an artwork would require many ‘photographs’ from various angles. The final essential step in completing this system is to apply the photographs with an image fusion algorithm. Through image processing fine art is combined with mathematics to ensure a more reliable and accessible form of preserving famous works.

    Video explaining the formalities of image processing
    Google Arts Project

  6. cindyxu

    Siftables, built by David Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi, especially resonate with Manovich’s principles. Siftables are small square devices that can wirelessly communicate with other Siftables around them. They can be placed next to other Siftables, flipped, tilted, shaken and pressed; this means endless possibilities for interaction. Certainly they are modular, since each of them is a self-sufficient electronic device, but they can be combined with others to create a more interesting conglomerate. They support variability as well, as different Siftables can be designated for different functions. Most importantly, however, they are a prime example of the principle of transcoding. Manovich mentions that new media devices have a “cultural layer” and a “computer layer”; on one hand, it must express itself in a way that humans can relate to and understand, and on the other, it must communicate with other electronic devices by following their protocol. Siftables should need a lot of technological wizardry, including motion sensing, neighbor detection, graphical display, and wireless communication to function and communicate the way that they do. All of that is hidden behind their human-friendly exteriors, yet it dictates the way that they will behave. What we receive, therefore, is a block that interacts with us and with other blocks in a manner that is intuitive to us, which is made possible with the way that these interactions are implemented in the hardware.

  7. emilymiller



    The design groups INVIVIA and Urbain DRC developed MIMMI, a giant, cloud-like airy sculpture that analyzes tweets of people within a 15 mile radius of the Minneapolis Convention Center and changes color depending on the mood of the tweets. This beautiful project is an example of how the numerical representation principle is utilized in digital art. Human mood and emotion, which are fairly abstract and deep and infinite concepts, are broken down into numerical language and represented by this new language so that they are able to be read, comprehended, and programed by a computer. Mood is originally continuos, as it as not really measured in a concrete, specific unit, so it must be digitized. According to the website, the designers “developed a program that sources this data and ruins it through an open-source textual analysis data set developed by [Harvard] university researchers, which recognizes over 4,000 positive and negative words and phrases.”

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