Principles of digital economy?

A picture of Lev Manovich, which isn’t here at all but rather sitting on a UCLA server. Isn’t modularity wonderful?


I’m enjoying Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media. I wrote about this before, describing his unconventional prologue which hooked me into buying the book in the first place.

Right now, though I think it’s worth exploring his answer to that most fundamental question: what is “new media”? As he says “the popular understanding of new media identifies it with the use of a computer for distribution and exhibition.” Such an understanding, he argues, leads to the somewhat absurd situation where a text or photograph is old media when printed in a book, exactly the same text or image is somehow transformed into “new media” if distributed via web or e-book or stored on CD -ROM.

Such a definition is too limiting, he argues. To understand new media as a mode of distribution makes it “only” as revolutionary as the printing press. To think of it as a mode of storage renders new media as incapable of transforming culture as the transition from shellac records to vinyl.

The introduction of the printing press affected only one stage of cultural communication – the distribution of media. Similarly, the introduction of photography affected only one type of communication – still images. In contrast, the computer media revolution affects all stages of communication, including acquisition, manipulation, storage, and distribution; it also affects all types of media – texts, still images, moving images, sound, and spatial constructions.

So, instead he sets out five “principles” by which we may know and understand new media. And I think they may have a broader application, to the the digital economy as a whole. That said, Manovich is reluctant to use the word digital in this thesis “because this idea acts as an umbrella for three unrelated concepts – analog-to-digital conversion, a common representational code, and numerical representation.” I am, however, not so fussy. Besides, the word new stands for many more unrelated concepts, doesn’t it?

Anyhow, back to his principles. They are (in a carefully composed order because after the first, each is a consequence of it’s predecessors):

  1. Numerical representation – We’re talking digital media here, and the clue is in the name (whatever Manovich may think). Whether created on a computer, or scanned or ripped from an analogue source, a new media object is a function of numbers. Which means that it can be decribed formally, and can be manipulated algorithmically.
  2. Modularity – As every digital object is a number (or series of numbers, or algorithm) elements of every type (sounds pictures text etc etc can be assembled into other objects. The most obvious example that Manovich uses is web page like ths one, which is only presented as a single object by our browsers, but is in fact made up from a piece of text I’ve written, pictures I saw on anther site (and which is still stored on that site’s server, all I’ve done is point your browser at it) and other features created (for all I know, I didn’t put them there) by the WordPress software.
  3. Automation – As Manovich says “The numerical coding of media (principle 1) and the modular structure of media object (principle 2) allow for the automation of many operations involved in media creation, manipulation and access. Thus human intentionality can be removed from the creative process, at least in part.
  4. Variability – This is particularly interesting (not just because I’m interested in adaptive narrative). Manovich correlates industrial and now digital media with the ideologies of the industrial and digital age: “In industrial mass society everyone was supposed to enjoy the same goods – and to share the same beliefs. This was also the logic of media technology. A media object was assembled in a media factory (such as a Hollywood studio). Millions of identical copies were produced from a master and distributed to all the citizens. Broadcasting, cinema and print media all followed this logic. In a postindustrial society, every citizen can construct his or her own custom lifestyle and and “select” her ideology from a large (but not infinite) number of choices. Rather than pushing the same objects/information to a mass audience, marketing now tries to target each individual separately. The logic of new media reflects this new social logic.” So, if you are ready this page on your mobile browser, it will look different to the same page on a desktop, unless of course, you choose to return the desktop version. And of course this variability is a function of the automation in principle 3, I haven’t created the mobile version, its done automatically.
  5. Transcoding – Everything that happens to a cultural object  in the principles above created a new type of object that exists in two “layers.” In one, cultural, layer it is the old media object we all recognise, the photograph, the song, the story, and in the second “computer layer” is is a file in a database.

As Manovich says “New media may look like media, but this is only the surface.” Is this true of the digital economy as well?