Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 55, December 2003



Michael Truscello


The Birth of Software Studies:

Lev Manovich and Digital Materialism



Lev Manovich

_The Language of New Media_

Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002

ISBN 0-262-13374-1 hb; 0-262-63255-1 pb

354 pp.


'I can't imagine that students today would learn only to read and write using the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. They should at least know some arithmetic, the integral function, the sine function -- everything about signs and functions. They should also know at least two software languages. Then they'll be able to say something about what 'culture' is at the moment'. -- German media theorist Friedrich A. Kittler. [1]


Until recently, there was a political party in Canada that went by the name 'Progressive Conservative', an oxymoronic moniker that might also apply to Lev Manovich's seminal work, _The Language of New Media_, even more appropriately (the party was just flat-out conservative). 'New media', for Manovich, is at once old and new, an aesthetic continuation of the modernist avant-garde and a register of the computerization of contemporary culture. As he states it late in the book: 'One general effect of the digital revolution is that avant-garde aesthetic strategies came to be embedded in the commands and interface metaphors of computer software. In short, *the avant-garde became materialized in a computer*' (306-307). While the guts of new media reflect the reduction of media objects to their computable foundation in code, the skin of those objects is cast in the familiar mould of modernist cinema. Scholars in both film and media studies -- and the host of disciplines that camp at sites in between -- may find Manovich's rendering of visual culture to be a comforting blend of sobering historicization and radical demarcation, reducing the level of anxiety that has developed in recent years over the possibility film studies could be subsumed by media studies.


Consider the possible reconciliation of these disciplines in Manovich's most barebones declaration of his thesis: 'To summarize, *the visual culture of a computer age is cinematographic in its appearance, digital on the level of its material, and computational (i.e. software driven) in its logic*' (180). One could argue that what Manovich has done, by arguing that the aesthetics of new media is ruled by the aesthetics of modernist cinema, is return new media to the history of cinema. He does say, provocatively: 'As was the case centuries ago, we are still looking at a flat, rectangular surface, existing in the space of our body and acting as a window into another space. We still have not left the era of the screen' (115). Problem solved; film studies wins. However, as we just saw, Manovich suggests (and repeatedly) that the 'logic' of new media, that which arranges its most fundamental processes, is a function of its software, and as such it is the ontology of the computer that imposes itself onto culture. He admits that software is a product of culture, and that certainly 'larger cultural patterns' are reflected in the software, but software is the atomistic base of Manovich's particulate new-media universe.


Here he is on 'the projection of the ontology of a computer onto culture itself':


'If in physics the world is made of atoms and in genetics it is made of genes, computer programming encapsulates the world according to its own logic. The world is reduced to two kinds of software objects that are complementary to each other -- data structures and algorithms . . . The computerization of culture involves the projection of these two fundamental parts of computer software -- and of the computer's unique ontology -- onto the cultural space.' (223)


Manovich replaces the primary structuralist and Russian formalist terms of synchronic and diachronic, selection and combination, and metaphor and metonymy, with 'data structures' and 'algorithms', to reflect the rule of software logic in the dialectical tension of his 'digital materialism'. Unlike Friedrich Kittler, Manovich does not present digitalization as the endgame of media; instead, he foregrounds the current dominance of software logic, but casts it in a historical context. For those anxious over the potential disappearance of film studies, Manovich's text represents a savvy compromise: We have not left the 'era of the screen', but we are now speaking the 'language' of new media.


Manovich ranges impressively from topics in computer science, to, to the history of visual culture, and back again to productivity software used in everyday life. One believes by the end of the book that the reason Manovich so capably imagines 'software theory' -- what he calls his 'turn to computer science' to explain programmable media -- is because he has lived it most of his life. Manovich's importation of computer science into cultural studies marks the most important shift in cultural studies in at least a decade, and makes _The Language of New Media_ the most important text for media studies, cultural studies, and film studies scholars in at least the same period of time. The question now, two years after its original publication, is not *whether* a scholar from one of these fields must engage Manovich's ideas, but *how*.


Manovich begins by situating himself and his historicization of new media. After a series of impressionistic stills from Dziga Vertov's 1929 avant-garde film _Man with a Movie Camera_, accompanied by theoretical samples from Manovich's text, Manovich quickly establishes his personal history with new media and its constituent elements by mentioning his coursework in calculus, computer programming, and classical drawing in Moscow in 1975, his work with the burgeoning field of 3-D computer animation in New York in 1985, and the moment at the Ars Electronica computer-art festival in 1995 when the 'computer graphics' category was replaced by 'net art'. By immersing his text in personal and historical details of the fields of computing and graphic arts, Manovich establishes some of the contingencies that attend to the formalist rendering of new media that follows. The formal properties of new media -- the categories that will no doubt attract the most speculation and critique from interested observers -- are not to be read as reductive and universal properties of new media, but rather part of a historical continuity that continues to evolve, and one that Manovich observes from his unique subjectivity as a theorist, programmer, and artist. The initial 'move' of _The Language of New Media_ embodies the methodology of the text: _Man with a Movie Camera_ is the structural template for new media's conventions (a formalist move), and Manovich's personal history exemplifies the ideological space from which these conventions are being observed and catalogued (a postmodernist move). As a methodology, his formalism is conservative, I would argue, but his historicist sense of the ways in which forms evolve is progressive, an interrogation of subject-object relations in the age of computable machines.


Manovich's personal history also illustrates the functional way in which Manovich himself is a Gramscian intellectual for the information age: Manovich is a self-conscious product of the state's promotion of media technologies (through his schooling in math and computer science in the former Soviet Union), but more importantly he is a media theoretician who *does* media, that rare breed of media studies critic who programs, designs new media objects, and so on. Gramsci believed the realm of the intellectual should be grounded in the practice of everyday life and not simply an effect of oratory, and Manovich embodies this progressive creed.


By bringing the concepts of computer science to the interdisciplinary work of media studies, Manovich has given the attendant disciplines of film studies, art history, and cultural studies in general their most important theoretical tools since New Historicism framed the study of non-literary texts. To ignore the 'programmable' logic of new media and the discourse of computer science that informs these media objects is to ignore the most fundamental fact of the network society: the computational logic of its constituent parts.


A perfect example of Manovich's methodology -- and there are many such examples, as the book deftly surveys the history of cinema for the antecedents of new media and its 'various conventions used by designers . . . to organize data and structure the user's experience' (7) -- is his use of the term 'object' (instead of 'artifact' or 'text', for example):


'The term [object] thus fits with my aim of describing the general principles of new media that hold true across all media types, all forms of organization, and all scales. I also use *object* to emphasize that my concern is with the culture at large rather than with new media art alone. Moreover, *object* is a standard term in the computer science and computer industry, where it is used to emphasize the modular nature of object-oriented programming languages such as C++ and Java, object-oriented databases, and the Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) technology used in Microsoft Office products . . . In addition, I hope to activate connotations that accompanied the use of the word *object* by the Russian avant-garde artists of the 1920s.' (14)


Thus the text's most ubiquitous theoretical term encompasses his formalist ambitions; extends these formalisms to the larger cultural context of media production, distribution, and dissemination; hails the discipline of computer science from which the term accrues its most salient definition and pervasive application in the network society; and recalls connotations from the context of modernist cinema. This methodological trajectory for the term 'object' is also the methodological trajectory for _The Language of New Media_ and the birth of software studies. Manovich writes:


'To understand the logic of new media, we need to turn to computer science. It is here that we may expect to find the new terms, categories, and operations that characterize media that became programmable. *From media studies, we move to something that can be called 'software studies' -- from media theory to software theory*' (48).


Manovich outlines five principles of this 'logic' of new media, which deserve a brief summary here. These principles are not permanent, but rather emerge from a historical period that, based on Manovich's examples of new media objects, seems to primarily encompass 'new media' as it was in the 1990s. Briefly, the five principles are as follows:


1. Numerical representation. The digitization of culture means that new media objects are quantifiable as discrete sets of data in digital code; '*media becomes programmable*' (27).


2. Modularity. Comparable to fractal self-similarity across scale in complexity theory, all new media objects possess 'the same modular structure throughout' (30). 'In short, a new media object consists of independent parts, each of which consists of smaller independent parts, and so on, down to the level of the smallest 'atoms' -- pixels, 3-D points, or text characters' (31). The analogy with complexity theory may not be the most appropriate, since complexity theory is interested in the relational properties of systems, while Manovich seems to be talking about a reductive, particulate conception of materiality (i.e. 'down to the level of the smallest 'atoms''). But clearly modularity is a property of 'structured computer programming' (31), which constructs software in terms of modular subroutines ('independent parts') and variables ('smallest 'atoms''?).


3. Automation. As you search a Web site such as, you may notice how the 'recommended' products begin to conform to the products you have already viewed and perhaps even purchases you made. Your access to the data is being subjected to on-the-fly manipulation by the algorithms of 'intelligent' software, an automated process that mediates between the user and the data. 'The numerical coding of media (principle 1) and the modular structure of a 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' (32).


4. Variability. Once again, because new media are digital code and modular, their form can change and '*a number of different interfaces can be created from the same data*' (37). The Amazon site is an example of this, morphing its appearance to customize its data according to the information it has about the user. Manovich cites other scenarios -- hypermedia, periodic updates, scalability -- as indicative of the principle of variability. He believes variability agrees with the logic of postindustrial society, which values customization, over the logic of industrial society, which valued mass conformity (41).


5. Transcoding. Manovich calls transcoding 'the most substantial consequence of the computerization of media' (45), because it describes the process in which media objects are translated into other formats, specifically the digital format, and this digitalization of culture subjects the culture at large to the ontology of the computer. Although Manovich maintains throughout that this influence is not unidirectional -- that software is created by culture as much as it creates culture -- _The Language of New Media_ exhibits more interest in the ways in which the ontology of the computer, its hardware and software, shapes culture. For example, Manovich writes:


'In new media lingo, to 'transcode' something is to translate it into another format. The computerization of culture gradually accomplishes similar transcoding in relation to all cultural categories and concepts. That is, cultural categories and concepts are substituted, on the level of meaning and/or language, by new ones that derive from the computer's ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics. New media thus acts as a forerunner of this more general process of cultural reconceptualization' (47).


Mapping the conventions of new media, then, presages the mapping of a new culture.


The section that follows these five principles outlines the comparative media part of his argument, which situates new media within the historical continuity of old media, especially cinema. In 'What New Media Is Not', Manovich explores what he calls 'popularly held notions about the difference between new and old media' (49), and attempts to debunk the notion that several aspects of new media are a radical departure from old media. For example, Manovich notes that both cinema and new media are based on 'sampling' reality, and so each create discrete units of space or time. Cinema prepared us for new media because cinema sampled time and made discrete units of it on film; digital media simply quantifies these discrete units. The harder part, says Manovich, was the initial conceptual leap 'from the continuous to the discrete' (50). He also claims that cinema was the original 'multimedia', because it combined 'moving images, sound, and text' a century before new media (50) -- indeed, the 1960s, in its flirtations with smell-o-vision and electrified 'tingler' seats, opened olfactory and tactile channels for the cinema as well. In 'The Myth of the Digital' Manovich attacks concepts related to 'digitization' and the ways in which these concepts are used to segregate new media from old; for example, 'while in theory, computer technology entails a flawless replication of data, its actual use in contemporary society is characterized by loss of data, degradation, and noise' (55).


The most problematic category being 'debunked' here is what Manovich calls 'The Myth of Interactivity'. Here Manovich is overzealous in his attempt to frame new media as an artifact of historical continuity. Interactivity normally refers to the obvious fact that new media, as they are commonly identified, often permit physical manipulation of new media objects by the user to create or complete or in some way alter the objects. Watching a movie is traditionally considered an inherently passive activity, and the viewer cannot affect the form of the film through direct manipulation. Manovich discredits this distinction between old and new media by what seems to be simply semantic trickery: he claims computer-based media is 'by definition interactive', and therefore the use of the term 'interactive' is tautological. If that is what it is 'by definition', why is it tautological to define it as such?


'When we use the concept of 'interactive media' exclusively in relation to computer-based media, there is the danger that we will interpret 'interaction' literally, equating it with physical interaction between a user and a media object (pressing a button, choosing a link, moving the body), at the expense of psychological interaction' (57).


I don't think media theorists are denying 'psychological interaction' by promoting physical interaction as a primary means by which new media may be demarcated from old media. Interactivity by itself is not a useful category, claims Manovich, because it is ubiquitous; but this depends on a cognitivist definition of interactivity, in which all cultural texts require mental processes to be completed and comprehended. 'Ellipses in literary narration, missing details of objects in visual art, and other representational 'shortcuts' require the user to fill in missing information' (56). He makes interactivity meaningless by conflating it with cognition in general; which is not to suggest that the two are necessarily separate, but rather that physical interactivity -- the manipulation of a mouse, the wearing of a VR helmet with motion-sensitive gloves, or the rearranging of scenes in a film on DVD-ROM -- is not the same as mental cognition, even though physical interactivity requires mental cognition, and hermeneutic interpretation requires mental cognition. 'Pressing a button, choosing a link, moving the body': these are not the same activities as the gestalt activity of filling in the blanks between discrete units of film. Defining different kinds of interactivity, as Manovich does -- 'menu-based interactivity, scalability, simulation, image-interface, and image-instrument' (56) -- while it certainly contributes to a more nuanced understanding of interactivity, does not change the fact that physical interactivity is almost universally one of the features that differentiates new from old media.


While some of Manovich's attempts to historicize new media are excessive and lack compelling argument, for the most part he has performed the essential task of bridging the two cultures of art and engineering, and given computer science its deserved place in the pantheon of cultural studies. In his introduction to _The New Media Reader_, Manovich boldly contends that the computer scientists who made the new media revolution possible -- by creating and developing computer programming, the graphical user interface, hypertext, and other technologies -- 'are the most important artists of our time, maybe the only artists who are truly important and who will be remembered from this historical period'. [2] It is hyperbole, certainly, but also perhaps a necessary corrective for the cultural amnesia that surrounds the role of computer science in everyday life. Of course, Manovich can't stop there: 'The articles by Licklider, Sutherland, Nelson, and Engelbart from the 1960s included in the reader are the essential documents of our time; one day the historians of culture will rate them on the same scale of importance as texts by Marx, Freud, and Saussure'. [3]


I have highlighted in this review Manovich's emphasis on the impact of transcoding because he himself suggests its importance; however, clearly, the role of culture in the shaping of new media should not be overlooked. Manovich says as much in _The Language of New Media_: 'to develop a new aesthetics of new media, we should pay as much attention to cultural history as to the computer's unique possibilities to generate, organize, manipulate, and distribute data' (314). Software studies must not only investigate the ways in which the computer's ontology shapes culture, it must also analyze the culture that shapes computer programming. The prejudices against seeing computer science manifestos and system prototypes as the cultural equivalents of artistic manifestos and creations must be removed. As Manovich argues in _The New Media Reader_: 'Structurally manifestos correspond to the theoretical programs of computer scientists, while completed artworks correspond to working prototypes or systems designed by scientists to see if their ideas do work and to demonstrate these ideas to colleagues, sponsors and clients'. [4]


Is Eric Raymond's 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar' the Port Huron Statement of the Open Source movement, as Steven Johnson once wondered? What is the impact, if any, of Richard Stallman's 'GNU Manifesto' on visual culture? Will Tim Berners-Lee's notion of 'the Semantic Web' transform visual culture like Eisenstein's notion of montage revolutionized cinema? How do the post-cyberpunk novels of Neal Stephenson, such as _Cryptonomicon_, affect the constitution of the code? How will these seemingly disparate cultural objects from the culture of computer science shape the aesthetics of new media? The goal of software studies, as exemplified in _The Language of New Media_, is not to predict future states of new media, but to catalogue its emergent properties, and the objects mentioned above are shaping its current constitution.


New media emerges at the level of everyday life. Just as the transition to postmodernism signaled the erasure of the distinction between high and low culture, the transition from old to new media hails the technologically mediated transition from macropolitics to micropolitics; that is, old media were largely created and deployed in institutionally controlled settings at the service of large groups (often the military, but also other segments of government and industry), whereas new media have been assimilated into everyday life and often emerge from and are subject to the work of individuals who remain outside institutional constraints. Manovich says, 'as we shift from an industrial society to an information society, from old media to new media, the overlap between producers and users becomes significantly larger' (119). This overlap of users and producers reflects the model of power described by poststructuralists and postmodernists, one in which macropolitical institutions emerge from micropolitical practices; while cultural studies has focused on micropolitical practices for some time, it has largely ignored the computational base of these practices, something software studies is uniquely positioned to correct.


Digital cameras and personal computers enable individual filmmakers to create films outside the studio system while approximating the production values of studio films (and institutional films have rapidly assimilated or aped the features of low-cost video production). Musicians can record entire CDs using software for PCs that captures the variety and quality of a corporate studio. Programmers can reconfigure the tools of the information society using Free or Open Source software, a capability that has existed for a long time, but one that only recently, with the emergence of the Internet and the massive scalability of parallel debugging that it enables, presented the possibility of qualitatively changing everyday life. Mark Poster recently argued that:


'the media transform place and space in such a way that what had been regarded as the locus of the everyday can no longer be distinguished as separate from its opposite. This change operates to nullify earlier notions of the everyday but also opens the possibility for a reconfigured concept of daily life which might yet contain critical potentials'. [5]


Software studies signals simultaneously the ubiquity and normative quality of 'programming' in everyday life, and the revolutionary potential of computable culture to redefine everyday life; in other words, as we sit on the precipice of ubiquitous computing, the practice of programming has moved from the macropolitical spaces patronized by kings of industry, the fortified ivory towers of academia, and the cubicle farms of IT warehouses, to the daily activities of micropolitical spaces such as the home, the car, and the street. Whether such micropolitical action involves programming a cell phone to remind one of an important task, or contributing to the reconfiguration of an open source operating system such as Linux, programming can reify the banalities of normal life or transform the passivity of postmodern subjugation into political action, but programming is no longer only the tool of industry, government, or other institutional forces.


Software studies may be the ideal research praxis for investigating the impact of the computer's ontology on culture in countless contemporary and historical objects, and at least two prominent examples deserve mention here: the Semantic Web, and Open Source Software. According to Tim Berners-Lee, the next stage of evolution for the World Wide Web is a cyberspace structured not only by form (the size, font, colour, and page-location of some text, for instance) but by meaning (the fact that the text is a header or an abstract or a product description); this stage is what he calls 'the Semantic Web', and is the product of the steady replacement of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) by XML (eXtensible Markup Language) as the standard for data exchange on the Web. HTML is essentially a formatting language, which allows authors to determine the look of a Web page using tags that code the layout of a page; but XML, 1, allows authors to generate their own set of markup tags, and more importantly, 2, can generate structured data. Instead of simply identifying where characters should be bolded or italicized, XML enables authors to identify what the content 'means'. So, this review written in XML could have used tags such as <AUTHOR>, <MEDIA THEORIST>, or <BOOK REVIEW>. These tagged elements could be compared with others on the Web based on what they 'mean' and not simply the text they contain. Berners-Lee and his colleagues, James Hendler and Ora Lassila, write that: 'The Semantic Web will bring structure to the meaningful content of Web pages, creating an environment where software agents roaming from page to page can readily carry out sophisticated tasks for users.' [6] Instead of searching for 'Lev Manovich' as it appears in any context, I might search the Web for 'Lev Manovich' where it is part of an <ABSTRACT> element. Right now, the Web simply displays information; in the future, it will 'understand' the information. 'The challenge of the Semantic Web, therefore', say Berners-Lee and company, 'is to provide a language that expresses both data and rules for reasoning about the data and that allows rules from any existing knowledge-representation system to be exported onto the Web.' [7] In theory, that is how it would work.


Consider how this transformation of the Web might be interpreted by software studies, given what Manovich says about 'the flat structure of the Web':


'Art historians and literary and film scholars have traditionally analyzed the structure of cultural objects as reflecting larger cultural patterns (for instance, Panofsky's reading of perspective); in the case of new media, we should look not only at the finished objects but first of all at the software tools, their organization and default settings. This is particularly important because in new media the relation between production tools and media objects is one of continuity; in fact, it is often hard to establish the boundary between them. Thus we may connect the American ideology of democracy with its paranoid fear of hierarchy and centralized control with the flat structure of the Web, where every page exists on the same level of importance as any other and where any two sources connected through hyperlinking have equal weight.' (258)


Is this still true of the Semantic Web and its 'structured data'? Once data are structured, they have a definitive relationship to each other (relations partially defined by something called the Resource Description Framework, or RDF, which I will not discuss here). Is this a betrayal of the 'flat' structure of the Web? Isn't the Semantic Web hierarchical, even if the structure of the hierarchy is subject to change? Berners-Lee talks about 'ontologies', or sets of information that define the relations among terms, the ideology of the markup, if you will. Perhaps a software studies project could examine the relationship of the Document Type Definition (DTD), the file that enumerates the allowable elements in an XML document, to the XML documents? Or perhaps an ontology editor such as Protege could be the object of analysis? What ideology does this 'cultural interface' (70) betray?


The Semantic Web, along with the googlization of the Web and the relative regulability of its architecture, suggest that the Web is quickly becoming other than, or maybe never really was, a 'flat' structure reminiscent of American democracy. (Actually, maybe the commercialization of the Web and its infrastructure sounds very much like American democracy.)


The second potentially significant topic for software studies and its investigation of the new cultural logic at work in a computerized society is Open Source Software. As I have argued elsewhere, [8] cultural and media studies have neglected the study of software engineering texts and manifestos as legitimate object texts, ignoring what Manovich rightly invokes: the pervasion of the principles of computer science into everyday life. Open Source Software development, the method by which the source code for operating systems and applications is created collectively and distributed freely, directly addresses so many discourses of everyday life -- legal battles over copyright laws, Open Source's intimate development alongside bionomics and other neo-liberal economic theories, and the general questions it raises about social organization -- that it just might be the exemplary case study for software studies. If Free Software guru Richard Stallman is correct, and 'free software' is the central enabler in a 'free society' (he explicates the defining adjective this way: 'free' as in 'free speech', not as in 'free beer'), then Open Source Software connects the technical base of new media (its source code) with its cultural expression in various provocative ways yet to be explored by new media theorists. As Tarleton Gillespie writes: 'A look to the [technological] artifact must quickly look beyond, to see its engagement with communities of people, cultures of practice, institutional and social contexts, and discursive landscapes'. [9] Open Source and Free Software have been embraced by governments in South America, Asia, and Europe as an alternative to costlier proprietary software, and as a response to American cultural and economic imperialism. Early widespread adoption in North America has been based primarily on the quality of Open Source Software and the potential cost savings it represents; however, the cultural implications of Open Source Software for the network society are significant, and many Open Source advocates in North America are now doing what Gillespie urges, looking 'beyond' the artifact of quality code to the 'communities of people, cultures of practice, institutional and social contexts, and discursive landscapes' affiliated with Open Source.


For instance, in Manuel Castells's seminal study, _The Rise of the Network Society_, the logic of 'place' is superseded by the ahistorical space of 'flows': 'the network of communication is the fundamental spatial configuration: places do not disappear, but their logic and their meaning become absorbed in the network'. [10] Castells argues that the 'coming of the space of flows is blurring the meaningful relationship between architecture and society', and he reconceptualizes postmodernism around this point: 'In this perspective, postmodernism could be considered the architecture of the space of flows'. [11] Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig also gazes beyond the artifact, insisting from a legal perspective that Open Source Software contributes to the openness of the network society because its proliferation reduces the regulability of the architecture of cyberspace, the 'space of flows':


'Put too simply, everything I have said about the regulability of behavior in cyberspace -- or more specifically, about government's ability to affect regulability in cyberspace -- crucially depends on whether the application space of cyberspace is dominated by open code. To the extent that it is, government's power is decreased; to the extent that it remains dominated by closed code, government's power is preserved. Open code, in other words, can be a check on state power.' [12]

In Lessig's view, and more prominently for the past twenty years in the essays of Free Software activist Richard Stallman, a software development model and the ethics and engineering principles it embodies are mirrored in the society at large. Manovich echoes this sentiment: 'A code may also provide its own model of the world, its own logical system, or ideology; subsequent cultural messages or whole languages created with this code will be limited by its accompanying model, system, or ideology' (64).


The centrality of software studies to film studies and media studies remains untested; much work needs to be done in this field. A host of recent texts that qualify as 'software studies', such as Matthew Fuller's _Behind the Blip: Essays on the Culture Of Software_ and Geert Lovink's _My First Recession_, make significant contributions to the cultural study of software; however, Lev Manovich has produced the most comprehensive and foundational study of the formal properties that separate programmable from non-programmable culture, in his panoramic study of new media and visual culture, _The Language of New Media_. The computerization of culture has not only introduced a new set of cultural objects that embody the logic of software, it has also redefined old media such as cinema and photography. Cinema, for example, 'can no longer be clearly distinguished from animation' (295) because of its reliance on 'digital compositing'; digital cinema is, in fact, 'a subgenre of painting' (295). Such, Manovich argues, is the result of pervasive transcoding that has been central to North American culture since at least the 1960s (331). To understand the cultural 'output' of emerging media objects, then, we must first understand the programmable 'input' of the everyday life of the computer.


University of Waterloo

Waterloo, Ontario, Canada





1. Friedrich Kittler, 'Technologies of Writing/Rewriting Technology' <>, p. 12.


2. Manovich, 'New Media from Borges to HTML', in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds, _The New Media Reader_ (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), p. 15.


3. Ibid., p. 24.


4. Ibid., p. 15.


5. Mark Poster, 'Everyday (Virtual) Life', _New Literary History_, vol. 33, 2002, p. 743.


6. Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler, and Ora Lassila, 'The Semantic Web', _Scientific American_, 17 May 2001 <>.


7. Ibid.


8. See Michael Truscello, 'The Architecture of Information: Open Source Software and Tactical Poststructuralist Anarchism', _Postmodern Culture_, vol. 13 no. 3, May 2003 <>.


9. Tarleton Gillespie, 'The Stories Digital Tools Tell', in Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell, eds, _New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality_ (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 111.


10. Manuel Castells, _The Rise of the Network Society_, 2nd. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 443.


11. Ibid., p. 449.


12. Lawrence Lessig, _Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace_ (New York: Basic, 1999), p. 100.



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Michael Truscello, 'The Birth of Software Studies: Lev Manovich and Digital Materialism', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 55, December 2003 <>.


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