In his article “What is New Media,” Manovich examines the interaction between computers and culture, “a blend of human and computer meanings” (46). He argues that these interactions are continually transforming as computers are used in new ways, and that in their new iterations computers offer an unprecedented amount (and sometimes too much) of freedom to users/interacters, through both immediacy and a perception of uniqueness.
Manovich explains the rise of new media technologies as resulting from the “unprecedented amount of media materials” accumulated after the creation of old media, such as cameras, tape recorders, etc. New media arose from this accumulation as a way of storing, organizing and accessing these materials; in other words, from a need for increased speed and efficiency in accessing media materials (35). The “human creator” of old media, manually assembling for storage different media forms, necessitated the identicalness of old media; by contrast, new media “is characterized by variability.” Media is now assembled automatically by computers, leading to increasing variability and modularity—digitally stored media elements “maintain their separate identities and can be assembled into numerous sequences,” to be “created and customized on the fly” (36). A simple example of the variability arising from modularity is the Web page, as Manovich notes; webpages can be assembled near-instantaneously for various device formats, changing shape and deciding what is worth viewing based on the screensize of different devices (i.e., smart phones, laptops, iPads, etc.).
The automation and modularity of new medias has led to unprecedented “immediacy,” as well as an increasing perception of (or, emphasis on) uniqueness. Digital methods are used for creating web pages designed for specific users; advertisements, for example, arise based on a user’s Google search history, customizing the media as both “factory and showroom” (38). Manovich calls this concept “open interactivity,” in which the same “prototype” is used to create near-infinite variations of the same basic media, based on the preferences/needs of different users (40).
This new role for media has developed only in the postindustrial society, in which citizens select their own “lifestyle” and “ideology from a large (but not infinite) number of choices” (42). The illusion of uniqueness, generated by new media, ties new media technologies significantly with “social change” (41). The perceived uniqueness is generated by the allowance of choosing “a particular path” through hypertext, so every user “gets her own version of the work.” As the new media objects assure users of their own uniqueness in choice, thought and desire, it realizes the “utopia of an ideal society composed of unique individuals,” ironically by its automation (in lieu of a human creator) leading directly to the modern day cult of the individual (42).
The unprecedented amount of “variables, to be freely modified by a user,” brings to light some problems inherent in freedom. Freedom, the making of a choice, involves a “moral responsibility,” accompanied, necessarily, by “moral anxiety” (44). The freedom to modify, however, is necessarily contained by the computer’s filtration of variables; Manovich touches on this in his discussion of gaming, how computer players give the illusion of autonomous choice only by limiting our interactions with them. So in this instance, I’m not quite sure I follow Manovich’s free-modification-through-variability concept.
Instead, this “moral anxiety” he touches on might arise from a choice of what to perceive. Here, I would return to Manovich’s original discussion of the role of new media: to allow efficient access to our huge store of information through old media. The new computer culture, Manovich says, represents “a blend of human and computer meanings, of traditional ways in which human culture modeled the world and the computer’s own means of representing it” (46). But computers don’t choose how to represent the world; humans produce a model of the world, based on their culture, by choosing which information to focus on, which to interact with, and which to ignore.
Maybe I’m misunderstanding Manovich here. So computers and new media arise culturally, but their increasing modularity and variability has led those very cultures to lose control of their use. By our current release from ‘worldly’ responsibilities, or ‘human’ responsibilities rather (food, shelter, water, biological responsibilities maybe being a better word), what then do we choose to make our model of the world? How do we interact with those whose cultural models are based on daily necessities, when we (in the west) have such an array of choices of what to perceive in our expression of the world?