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New Media: a User's Guide


In summary, new media represents a convergence of two separate histories. It is a convergence of media technologies and of digital computing. It is important to notice that this convergence involves two distinct steps. Media representations are translated from analog to a digital code. This turns them into numerical data which can be subjected to any and all operations which computers are capable off. There are two separate ideas at work here: digital code and computation. New media involves two distinct ideas, that of the digital and that of computation. It refers to two distinct ideas: numerical (discrete) representation and a computer (a device for calculation). The two do not imply each other; for instance, analog computers can operate over continuous data. However, since digital media in reality most often is used in conjunction with computers, the two ideas became conflated. Still, the set of qualities which we attribute to digital media is eclectic, referring to both the idea of digital coding and to the idea of computation. However, the idea of a digital by itself can hardly separate new media from the old. What is essential is not that media is simply translated into a digital code but that through this translation it becomes subject to computation. In view of this, the term "digital media" which became popular in the 1990s is unfortunate, since it only reflects one idea - that of digitization. A better term would be "computer media" or, even better, "programmable media."

Out of these four principles, the principle of variability maybe be the most interesting. On the one hand, such popular new media forms as branching-type interactivity and hypermedia can be seen as particular instances of variability principle. On the other hand, this principle demonstrates how the changes in media technologies are closely tied up with changes in social organization. Just as the logic of old media corresponded to the logic of industrial mass society, the logic of the new media fits the logic of the post-industrial society of personal variability. In industrial mass society everybody was supposed to enjoy the same goods -- and to have 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, film distribution, print technologies all followed this logic.

In a post-industrial society, every citizen can construct her own custom lifestyle and "select" her ideology from a large (but not infinite) number of choices. Rather than pushing the same objects/information to a large group, marketing tries to target each individual separately, The logic of new media technology reflects this new condition perfectly. Every visitor to a Web site automatically gets her own custom version of the site created on the fly from a database. Every hypertext reader gets her own version of the text. Every viewer of an interactive installation gets her own version of the work. And so on. In this way new media technology acts as the most perfect realization of the utopia of a perfect society composed from unique individuals. New media objects assure the users that their choices — and therefore, their underlying thoughts and desires — are unique, rather than pre-programmed and shared with others. As though trying to compensate for their earlier role in making us all the same, today descendants of the Jacquard's loom, The Hollerith tabulator and Zuse's cinema-computer are now working to convince us that we are all different.

Article  1999