The Old Scholar's Historical Thoughts

September 5, 2009

The Primacy of Sight

Filed under: Readings — theoldscholar @ 2:30 am

Lev Manovich said his book, The Language of New Media, recorded and theorized the present in terms of the “language” of the new media of 2001. I think he succeeded in his recording of the state of the New Media of 2001, but his theory of where it was going missed the mark. His background in the arts influences his viewpoint. For him the important directions of New Media seemed to be databases, Virtual Reality, the make-up of images and other sight-dominant experiences of New Media. Yet just 8 years later the dominant direction of new media seems to be spatial awareness, social networking and instant communication. For instance, in our class of New Media, we don’t start off with videos, or photoshop we start off with creating a blog and signing up on Twitter. Theorizing on the future of trends is never very successful – unless you’re Warren Buffet. However, he did capture an important moment in the evolution of the New Media that I had forgotten about.

Manovich’s focus on data storage and the delivery mechanism such as Virtual Reality, and picture composition means he missed things like the changing paradigm of data processing. During this time I was immersed in LISP and artificial intelligence, which were also the “Way of The Future.” He talks about the difference between databases and narratives but does not get into the programming and the processing power needed to do some of the many things that allow the “language” of the New Media to be defined. It’s sort of like someone trying to explain the “language” of a symphony orchestra by discussing the instruments and how they all work, then discussing the sounds made when they all come together and leaving out that someone has to write the score and orchestrate the whole thing to make it worthwhile.

I must say the book made me think of a lot of interesting things – some of which gave me ideas for my project that I will put in another post. However, he said some things that just bothered me. For instance, on page 11 he equates the Operating System with the Human-Computer Interface (HCI). Believe me, the difference between a Mac and a Windows machine is a lot more than the HCI. Ask any device driver developer or hacker.

One point he made throughout the book was the primacy of sight and the importance of sight in our interaction with New Media. This was especially true in Chapter 3 when he talked about vision in relation to touch. My son is currently working with the Virginia Tech Center for Autism and designing spaces for people with Autism. His architectural research led him to the book The Eyes of the Skin by the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasma. This is an excellent read. It describes the architects attempt to understand why beautiful buildings just don’t “feel” right. He theorizes it is because people experience their surrounding through more than their eyesight – they touch the materials they walk on, they receive different sound vibrations due to materials they reflect off of, they get different perceptions of where their body is in space due to sight clues. The skin and your sense of touch, in some ways, is a better way to relate to your environment. This includes sound – which is in reality the middle ear “touching” the movement of sound waves through the air.  My son’s work with Autistic people has given all of us a better appreciation for our other senses.

I was thinking of this earlier this summer when I read some notes from THATCamp put on by GMU. (I forgot to record where it was.) Professor Petrik stated she thought a wonderful idea for a history site would allow people to hear the sounds of vehicles, horses, etc of the time period they were visiting and to even smell the environment. I have no idea how we are supposed to KNOW what things sounded or smelled like in history, but it is an attempt to break free from the primacy of sight enforced by the Language of New Media, as described by Manovich.



  1. Referring to his background, I would say that in addition to arts he has also attended the mathematical high school, and then he enrolled to Moscow Architectural Institute. While not contesting the fact that every profession has a dose of art in itself, I would say that Soviet school of architecture prepared engineers and not artists. Leaving this aside, I would disagree with the fact that his emphasis is only on the visual culture.

    As he clearly refers not only to the visual quality of the cinema but mainly to cinema as a sort of preparatory stage for the emergence of new media. In this sense, he refers to the capacity of cinema to combine the principle of art and standardization of production. Concerning, your argument about our first assignment with blogs and Twitter, instead of photoshop and images, to me it is clear that a huge part of blogging and twittering entail certain covert and overt visual experiences.

    Moreover, I totally agree with you that in the digital media “I have no idea how we are supposed to KNOW what things sounded or smelled like in history” and this is why we are limited by our more or less biased visual experience. Still, as Manovich shows in his description of new media myths, even our visual perception is distorted by the technology called “lossy compression.” In this sense, his seminal study is useful for our realistic estimation of the limits and flaws of the apparently limitless and flawless old “new media”.

    Comment by alex_lesanu — September 5, 2009 @ 11:12 am | Reply

    • Alex,
      My critique was not on Manovich’s emphasis on visual culture, it is more on the fact that our culture is oriented on visual interactions and Manovich was commenting on the impact of New Media on our visual experience.
      You are right – blogs are definitely a visual experience and one that suffers from “lossy compression.” A discussion of this sort is so much better between people in a face to face environment, hopefully over a beer. The discussion can expand quickly and factors such as establishing a rapport with the other person would enter into the exchange of ideas. I agree with your conclusion that his study is useful in our estimation of the limits and flaws of the New Media. Manovich, looking at the state-of-the-art in 2000, talks about limitations of the visual experience. In 2009 the new media manifestation of social interaction with Twitter, Facebook, and blogs is also limiting. Unfortunately, I see many people believing that because they text to other people over 50 times a day, they are establishing and maintaining friendships. Visual/Textual interaction, while allowing long distance communication, is not personal interaction – its a crippled substitute.

      Comment by John Henry — September 6, 2009 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  2. […] was struck by the post of a colleague that commented on the primacy of sight and it reminded me of a book that I recently read,  Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, […]

    Pingback by First Impressions of Manovich « Goberle's Blog — September 7, 2009 @ 8:51 am | Reply

  3. John –

    I largely agree with your assessment of Manovich’s tilt to things visual. His extensive use of silent film and the powerful Orwellian vision of the computer screen seem to confirm that. A weakness is his failure to address aural and physical sensations. The advent of sensation controllers for games adds a physical level to the digital experience and no one can argue with the power of good audio… thank God for George Lucas.

    But, I want to examine a point you made about databases, VR, etc: For him the important directions of New Media seemed to be databases, Virtual Reality… Yet just 8 years later the dominant direction of new media seems to be spatial awareness, social networking and instant communication.

    I think Manovich has nailed a salient point on the primacy of data. Digital denizens think in terms of data, we hoard data, and more efficient databases drive the communications to which you refer. Social networking, automated awareness of any kind, and instant communication relies on the premise of getting the right information to the right user at the right time. This is a clumsy definition of knowledge management. The key component of KM is the database and the system of AI or algorithms in use determine how successful they are at drawing inferences from the data and presenting it to you. For example, Facebook will make friend suggestions based on the simple premises of common school/work/organization and on a very slightly more complicated notion of friends of friends. Linked-in largely exists on that premise such that with only 3 degrees of separation, you too know Kevin Bacon.

    It all works and works better because of efficient use and storage of data. The mental framework at play allows for creative exploitation of basic data elements which are completely flexible.

    Just another rabbit trail…


    Comment by DeadGuyQuotes — September 8, 2009 @ 6:44 pm | Reply

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