Geoffrey Batchen: Lev, your impressive new book, The Language of New Media, is important for the way it goes about trying to trace a coherent history for its subject. This, of course, can't help but raise all sorts of provocative questions (including definitional questions about both "language" and "new media"). The ones that struck me have to do with the archaeology you provide for new media and with your choice of a particular theory and history of cinema as the "key conceptual lens" through which to look at this archaeology. New media, however you define it, incorporates so many different aesthetics and technologies (computing, photography, video, film, animation, graphics, sound, software design, 3D-modelling, to name only a few), that it's hard to see why it's so useful to privilege any one "conceptual lens." Of course this choice does provide you with a strikingly concrete metaphor for your history, the Z1 computing machine built by Konrad Zuse in his parents' living room in 1936, a machine that incorporated punched tape made from discarded 35mm movie film. Given the stress you place on this moment ("the two separate historical trajectories [media and computing] finally meet," "a son murders his father"), I can see why you chose to replicate it on the cover of your book.
But why couldn;t you equally argue that most of the significant conceptual relationships that you identify with new media are already current a century before Zuse cluttered up his parents' house with the Z1? You mention Daguerre and his copper-based photographic plates, for example, but ignore the fact that the inventors of the computer and of paper-based photography, Englishmen Charles Babbage and Henry Talbot, were close friends and collaborators. Babbage even exhibited Talbot's early photographs next to his Difference Engine in 1840, as if to suggest that they were of the same order. Babbage was, of course, famous not only for his mathematics (as was Talbot, incidentally) but also for his software design using punched cards and for his code-breaking skills, a past-time he often shared with Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone, in turn, invented a stereoscopic system of representation, and made a photographic stereo-portrait of Babbage, the world's first effort at a virtual 3D-modelling of the human form. Meanwhile, another of photography's inventors, the American painter Samuel Morse, came up with a system for an electric telegraph, building his earliest working model in 1837. Contemporary commentators were quick to put all this together, speaking of "a vast sounding gallery,...a vast picture gallery, and...a universal telegraph." Strange that you don;t mention the telegraph in your history, because it could be argued that this technology basically involves the decomposition of images into electrical impulses that are then sent to be recomposed somewhere else, all familiar attributes of new media. As Morse himself claimed in 1837, "if...electricity can be made visible...I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance."
So what's at stake in privileging cinema and 1936 as your two origin points in The Language of New Media? Why, in particular, return us to an "avant-garde masterpiece" of Russian cinema, Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera from 1929, as our analytical guide? Television had already been patented by 1924, but it only gets two brief mentions in your book. You argue instead that "cinematic ways of seeing the world, of structuring time, of narrating a story, of linking one experience to the next, have become the basic means by which computer users access and interact with all cultural data." But why go back to an already outmoded technology (cinema) if new media has, as you argue in your last few pages, a "radically new nature" and "new properties." In fact, isn't it striking how many features of computer interfaces borrow, not from cinema, but from the illustrated book? Indeed, isn't this the source of many of cinema's narrative features too? In fact, it could be argued that the implosion of depth and surface, the bodily interaction between image, eye and hand,, and the strange convolusion of temporal coordinates that one experiences sitting in front of a computer are all quite distinctive and different from the cinema experience. I better stop here, but you're getting my drift. I'm interested in histories, and how and why they're written, and your book is an excellent place from which to start any debate on how one might go about composing a history for new media.
I think I made a mistake in the book’s introduction when I wrote that cinema acts as the main “conceptual lens” through which I look at new media. In fact I use as many concepts from literary theory, art history and art theory. I also situate new media within the history of visual culture of the last few centuries (including vernacular images, painting, graphic design, animation) and not only the history of the moving image.
I can go on, but I hope these examples are sufficient. All in all, if we look at new media in terms of its new capacities for representation and its use of already existing representational techniques (which is what I am doing in my book), cinema indeed comes out to be more important than other arts and media – and this is why Zuse’s film ended up on the cover. Of course, if we are to focus on the emerging possibilities of new media for telecommunication and telepresence (which is what I plan to discuss in my next book) – cell phones, instant messaging, chat, multi-user games, and so on – Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph, the first television designs from the 1870s, the first fax from the turn of the century, or another image from the history of telecommunication would become more important.