Professor of New Media Art at the University of California, both artist and graphic designer, Lev Manovich does not need further presentation. His first book “The language of New Media” (it came out in Italy in 2002 in the Olivares Edition) was one of the main reference points for many theorists, artists, communicators and designers, that were already well settled down in the “new technology” sector. Ten years later, thanks to the digital diffusion, grammar was already consolidated in the capitalism era and Lev Manovich decided to analyze and study that which today is seen as our “interface with the world”(1): software.
From the so called pioneers in the sixties and eighties to the revolution of social media in the last five years, “Software Culture” (2010, Olivares Edition) zooms in on technology and on what differentiates media, giving life to what is called “metamedium”(2), or in other words,the computer. Something to which we confide our memories, our imagination, our wishes, desires and identity.
Lev Manovich presented his book in Milan during Meet the Media Guru on April 16th. He was surrounded by numerous students, theorists and professionals in new media. The same day I had the honour of interviewing him, as a result of a process of the deep study of his latest work, arranged directly by Diticult and Olivares. Not only did I try to revisit all the crucial points of his book, I also got him to speak about the new projects started by the Software Studies Initiative, a laboratory of research in the “software society”, which he directs at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Technology.
Giulia Simi: If you don’t mind, I would like to go in the same order as your book and start with the history of the first researchers and founders. Definitely a fascinating story which speaks about dreams, utopia, like the utopia of controlling creative instruments…
Lev Manovich: Obviously not only control, but for the users to be able to write their own software That is the part that turned out to be much more difficult not that you can’t do it, but it turned out to be much more difficult than they expected.
Giulia Simi: Yes, but that is exactly the point. I think that today we are still very far from that utopia. No user is capable of making his own software. Maybe this is the way to go for the future?
Lev Manovich: You have people asking these kinds of questions there’s people like Alan Kay, who was probably the person most central to the story. The reason I focused on Alan Kay obviously there are other people who were very important, such as Ivan Sutherland, Ted Nelson but some of these other people were really interested in creating new media tools for scientists, while Alan Kay was really coming at it as a musician, he was also very interested in psychology, so obviously when he describes the invention at PARC he puts a lot of emphasis on creativity, music and image animation.
He’s not so concerned with the office stuff, and also because it turns out he was influenced by McLuhan. In some ways he was more theoretical, with his group of people. I’m doing a close reading of some of his articles and it turns out he actually had a thing with media.
So his vision has two parts: he’s looking at computer, of which a part is software, qualification software, which he didn’t really develop the word processor, graphics programs, etc and also the programming language, to allow users to experiment with tools. So we can ask, what happened to his vision? We have to remember that when he writes this article in 1977 (Manovich refers to “Personal Dynamic Media”, written by Alan Kay with Adele Goldberg), this is really before the personal computer revolution. So we can see that, in some part his vision did get realized.
For example, in the early 1990s more artists are working with computers, and you have developed the so-called field of visual art, media art a field which now, some people say, is not even necessary because so many people can do it. So I think maybe in terms of professional users, or people who are not even professional because they are being paid but just because they spend so much time on it, like you have these students who are using Processing.
And the second thing is, is it really necessary for anyone to really write their own software? From a point of view of literacy, you could say yes it’s a very good idea because then everyone has some basic understanding of how software works, it gives you a better understanding, a contact with society.
At the same time, you can say okay, but when Alan Kay was writing about it there was really no software. Well, now we have 150,000 iPhone applications I mean, you actually do have a tool to do pretty much anything you want, so maybe in some ways we don’t really need to have software written directly by users, because we do have so many different tools to do so many different things.
And maybe what’s necessary is something else… For example if I want I could write a book called “Excel for cultural theory” because it turns out that you can actually do all kinds of amazing things with Excel. So it’s also just a matter of using the tools that we already have.
Giulia Simi: I would like passing on to another concept that you underlined in your book, Deep Remixability, You speak about a revolutionary transformation of visual culture that involves mixing media, not only superficial contents, but in a deeper way, in a technical way. Infact, software allows media share the same grammar, a unique identical language.
You quote McLuhan in his famous saying “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” So should we therefore think that this deep remixability, that this new visual culture has influenced our imagination, our dreams and our identity?
Lev Manovich:That’s another excellent question. One thing I want to say is that this phenomena of deep remixability which is a term I’m not so happy with, but I couldn’t find another term for it it’s not limited to visual culture, because I think the same thing happens in sound. For example if I use any sound editing program it’s going to have some filters. One of the filters may be called echo.
Now, what is echo? It’s something that actually existed in the physical world with a particular phenomena in a particular space you have echo. What happens is that this phenomena, this artifact, is turned into a kind of software, an algorithm which now can be applied to anything. I can write some composition and apply echo.
And this phenomena is also applied to new fields people take these new materials, and take the properties of something for instance they make something which is really flexible, but maybe is as strong as steel. I haven’t developed these ideas very much, but it’s interesting to think about various phenomena also happening in other fields. So the question is about imagination.
I think already in The Language of New Media I was saying and of course that was written in 1999, so this is ten years later to what extent our imaginations are able to take new forms, or are we using new media to express ourselves with forms that are 500, 1,500, or 2,000 years old? I think that in most cases the answer of course would be yes, we’re making images with linear perspective, which has become important 500 years ago, we use technology to make photographs, starting 100 years ago, we obviously have cinematic modes… We do have of course some new forms, like hypertext, or maybe like a virtual kind of space.
And also I’d say new simulations, because games have obviously been around thousands of years, but the difference between the old and some contemporary computer games is that they put you in a whole simulated environment, so that does obviously seems to be a new phenomena.
In general, I think that one of the reasons why a large part of our vocabulary as abilities comes from the fifteenth century is because we have these very massively powerful industries, like cinema, publishing etc, and they are basically using this as a distribution media, so iPad is of course a good example…
Giulia Simi: See, you yourself brought up the iPad, I’m curious to know what you think about the device itself and about the discussions that have arisen about Apple, which seems to have assumed a closed approach towards this all.
Lev Manovich:Well, actually I wrote something about the iPad, some short notes that I posted on Facebook, so if you go to Facebook and look at my notes you’ll find it (3). Basically I was thinking again about Alan Kay and this idea we’ve discussed, about a society in which people are not only able to read but also write their own software, and I wrote this ironic text.
When the first Macintosh came out, 1984, people kept criticizing it, they said okay it’s an incredible application of software but it hides the real computer to the user. Well, what happened with the iPad, you can say it’s in some ways a step backward because people say it doesn’t have enough GUI applications. And it’s true.
If you look at this, it’s definitely designed more as an application machine, a machine for consuming, because it’s really difficult to get files in and out. If you want to get files in and out you have to either unlock it yourself or you have to sync it with another computer using iTunes, which means I have to get another computer. But at the same time you have to remember that this is version number one. When the iPhone first came out, for example, it didn’t have 3G. So my feeling is that we shouldn’t be so fast to make judgments about new technology.
My feeling is that they will open it up, so the next version will be better. And of course they are not going to make it exactly like the laptop, or nobody would buy the laptop. They want to make, to create a separate product category. So in some ways this becomes the perfect semiotic model to talk about marketing, in which all the signs have to be different from each other, all the market sectors have to be different from each other or you wouldn’t have these market sectors.
Giulia Simi: Another fundamental concept is what you called “scale”. You speak about how the large quantity of contents that are on the web have eliminated the differences between center and periphery and also between professionals and amateurs. I know that you have been working on an interesting research project called Cultural Analytics, which is closely related to this idea. Can you tell us something about that?
Lev Manovich: Right, of course. This work that I’ve been doing for the last couple of year about Cultural Analytics (4), and which is going well it’s actually related to the book, because the book talks about the first stage, which is the invention of cultural media software from approximately 1960 to approximately 1975 or ’78 the first word processor is from 1977 and about the second stage, in which we can see the diffusion. Just looking at professional software releases, Photoshop is in 1990, Aftereffects ’92, Premier ’93, Final Cut ’95. Than you have the third stage, which is social media.
I don’t know what to call this, maybe democratization. We can say that the second stage is about professional software, software for professional users, like Final Cut, and then in the final stage we have software for everybody. We can consider for example all these little tools that don’t have a name, like calculating software that allows you to look at your files. So you can say, what are some of the effects of this diffusion? Well, the effect is that you have millions of people using these tools, and these tools make it very easy to create something.
It takes much less effort to copy something and save it, you can actually make a drawing, so as a result millions of people become a kind of cultural creators. You can say that people were always creating songs, everyone on earth, all humans were always creating user-generated content, even 5,000 years ago. But now it all exists in one place, it’s all in one digital code and if you go online you’ll see it.
So for example if you go to Deviantart, that’s a hundred million images. And that’s semipro. So it becomes visible, this phenomena that people are creating content becomes visible and you can compare it. So how do I write about comparative culture? Well I can say okay let’s look at science, because scientists have been dealing with the problem of big data for a long time. So one of the ideas behind the invention of the computer was that the computer was supposed to help us manage information.
But of course what happens in reality is that it leads to an explosion of information, so to answer the question, if software is the real cause of this explosion in cultural content, then we also need software to understand it. So they said okay we have to start using visualization and related tools to actually try to map it out. I started this work about three years ago and it is progressing very well, we’ve already got like six grants, so I have people who are working in San Diego and in Singapore, and last year we started a big project it looks big today but it’s actually very small, only 1 million 100 pages.
We have 1 million pages that we analyzed on a super computer, we got a grant for that. And now, because I travel with my laptop I work on this every day and it’s very interesting. You can start asking new kind of questions. This is professional.
Our next project, which we are starting right now, is about Deviantart that has million of images.. So I’m hoping in the next few months to get a hold of all of it and then we can actually figure out what people are actually creating. Now I can say right away its going to be depressing, because we have a student who already in 2006 did a project where he saved 100,000 Myspace pages.
And he said, “you know I can’t look at this because it makes me so depressed, because people have really bad taste, and they don’t have creative backgrounds, so it’s going to be really bad.” But we have to do it, it’s our responsibility.
Giulia Simi: Okay, but can we interpret this kind of work as a sort of semiotics of visual culture through data visualisation?
Lev Manovich: That is a very interesting question, because this project comes out of my frustration with semiotics, and now I think it’s actually a way to make semiotics move forward. We have this idea of visual semiotics from, for instance, Roland Barthes, who published his first article around 1956 which is exactly the same year that the first article of computing and processing was published. So for 50 years people have been looking at the image, trying to understand what it means, what ar
e the elements, and then we realized it’s actually very hard because images are not a language where words have a stable meaning, instead the meaning of this dot depends on the whole painting. So it’s difficult. And I said, you know what? We could do something else, instead of looking at one image we’re going to look at many images, and we’re going to look at the changing patterns in texture, color, everything else. It’s a different kind of approach.
So I said, I’m going to have dinner, I’m going to look at the fashion show, and then we can leave out the science, which means you take the field of human experience, of human culture, which is kind of analog you know, if I’m listening to music what I want to know is if it sounds well It’s a process. it’s a sound wave. I would discretize my experience. Let’s look at what computer does.
The problem is that most of culture is analog I make movements and my movements are continuous, like a dancer, the images are continuous. So the way we actually describe and measure a continuous phenomena is by using computer visualization. So it’s a process that actually starts exactly where semiotics kind of runs into a wall. It’s a way to understand continuous processes, for example if we look at a feature film and can visualize the rithm of movement in the whole film, which would be impossible to do with semiotics.
The problem with semiotics is that it uses the very old technology of language. I mean, you can talk about the ryzome, but you can’t use language to talk about continuous phenomena, colors, actions, rithms…
Giulia Simi: A question I have to ask is about social media, to which the third part of your book is dedicated, particularly about the relationship between companies and consumers, who have become the real producers of contents in the world of web 2.0. You say how the market “strategies” have become “tactics”, quoting De Certau and his sociological analysis described in “L’Invention du Quotidien” (“The Practice of Everyday Life”). Saying how companies have learned to be flexible and therefore tactical, while the citizens-consumers-producers have become visible, mappable and therefore, in someway, more strategical.
Lev Manovich: In some ways the tactics become celebrated, it becomes a way to make business out of it. De Certeau wrote this book in 1984, the same year that the first Mac was released we always have to ask, what was happening that year? And 1984-85 was actually the first moment that mass culture, commercial culture, picked up a kind of underground trend like hip hop and started making business out of it. That’s right, it makes business so this piece of resistance becomes a market, a consumer product. This was already happening at that period.
So it’s true that social media participates in this process, but it’s also a different process, because you know how hip hop is just one style, how it has been made into a set of products, it’s something else. And that’s why many of these companies are not profitable, because you’re not selling a product, right? What you are really selling to people is the ability to communicate. But you are not even selling it to them, because obviously social sites are free. No social site is changing money, so of course it is more difficult…
Giulia Simi: What could some of these resistance tactics for citizens to use against the market in the era of social media?
Lev Manovich: Well, we can say that to some extent the tactics have become strategies but at the same time they are still kind of tactics. So people can organize a protest via SMS, or can invite people to a lecture with their Facebook page. But what can be the next thing? Because as I mentioned in this period, the social media paradigm gets established, it kind of explodes in 2004-2005.
I was an audience at the conference when Tim O’Reilly coined the term social web 2.0, but this is a new paradigm and I don’t really see a paradigm shift because this one still attracts a lot of energy. So we have micro-content like twitter, but it’s the same idea of a platform for social communication.
I mean, obviously, what people are most concerned about is the environment, ecology… We could talk about making solar computers and things like that, but it’s kind of hard to say how these discourses are going to affect forms of communication, to affect social media, in terms not of content but of form.
Giulia Simi: One last question about art. What do you think about contemporary art in software culture and what future do you see for it?
Lev Manovich: Art has already lost most of it’s differences with commercial media in the 1980s then the latter adopted abstract animation, installation and most other techniques and strategies of modern and contemporary art. However the new process started in the 1990s when artists in newly globalized countries made the trip from traditional to contemporary art language in a matter of a few years.
This great expansion of the art universe however did not result in any visible increase of quality. Today we see many professionally made and smart artworks which sometimes are inyeresting and fun – but never as innovative as what comes out from Googke labs. It is not hard to understand why art uses the same strategiies and assumptions as thirty years ago. Site specific installations, video, conceptualist strategies, irony, social critique and of course good old painting and photography – this all already existed for quite a while.
Anyway “contemporary art” will continue, more biennales will be established and more museums will be built. And just because of the huge size if the art system sometimes we will fund sine real talent and something which wil move us. Sometimes.
(1) Lev Manovich, “Software Culture”, Edizioni Olivares, Milano, 2010
(2) L’analisi approfondita del concetto di metamedium in riferimento al computer occupa tutta la prima parte di Software Culture.
(3) Le note inserite nella pagina di Facebook di Lev Manovich sono pubbliche. Consiglio quindi la lettura di “From Sketchpad to iPad” per un’approfondimento.
(4) Per la comprensione più dettagliata della ricerca consiglio di consultare la sezione “projects” del sito dedicato al laboratorio di ricerca Software Studies Initiative: http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2008/09/projects.html