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The Language of New Media

by: Smitha Butt & Amanda David

"Overall, it is hard to over-estimate the importance of The Language of New Media to the field of the same name, as itis the first rigorous and far-reaching theorization of the subject...The Language of New Media is required reading not only for those concernedwith the discourses surrounding new media, but also for anyone critically engaged with contemporary art and culture."
Katie Mondlock, UCLA
in CAA Reviews Summer 2001

"Anyone who wants to think clearly about the cultural implications of the digital mutation should read Lev Manovich’s new book, The Language of New Media. This book offers the most rigorous definition to date of new digital media; it places its object of attention within the most suggestive and broad ranging media history since Marshall McLuhan."
William Wagner, UCSB
in Telepolis, 2002

Meet the Author

(Excerpt taken from The European Graduate School)

"Lev Manovich, Ph.D., was born in Moscow in 1960 and based in New York since 1981, is an artist and one of the leading theorists of digital culture and media art. Lev Manovich frequently lectures on new media internationally and has published more than ninety influential articles on new media aesthetics. He studied art, architecture and computer science in Moscow, and received an M.A. in experimental psychology (New York University, 1988). He obtained a Ph.D. in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester (1993) with the work that traced the origins of computers in relation to the avant-garde movements of the 1920s. In 1984, Lev Manovich began working as a designer, programmer and computer animator, and he created the first digital film project designed for the Web, Freud Lissitzky Navigator (1994)." He is currently a professor of Cultural Analytics at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.


Lev Manovich's book, "The Language of New Media" shows how media has evolved through many decades. The book emphasizes on how the computer has played a central role in shaping media. This book resulted from extensive research by Manovich, and he classified media based on historical and critical criteria. 

In this book, Manovich used concepts from film theory, art history, literary theory, and computer science. Manovich also largely emphasized that cinema methodologies are connected to new media in many ways. To understand current digital technologies, he studied cinema related aspects like montage, film, screens, video, animation etc. Therefore, the language of the book shows a juxtaposition of cinematic terms, with new media and technology related terms. Manovich also provides relevant examples to explain the concepts in his book. A very notable feature in this book is the author’s efforts to clearly demarcate between old and new media. The basis of this demarcation comes from his argument that,” The contemporary computer media are actually the past avant-garde materialized." Thus Lev Manovich through this book succeeds in showing how concepts in cinema can help in gaining a better understanding of concepts related to new media technologies. 

Key Terms

cinematograph: “means ‘writing movement,’ the essence of cinema is recording and storing visible data in a material form (24).

database: “used to store any kind of data–from financial records to digital movie clips” (214).

human-computer interface (HCI): “describes the ways in which the user interacts with acomputer. HCI includes physical input and output devices such as a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. It also consists of metaphors used to conceptualize the organization of computer data. For instance, the Macintosh interface introduced by Apple in 1984 uses the metaphor of files and folders arranged on a desktop. Finally, HCI also includes ways of manipulating data, that is, a grammar of meaningful actions that the user can perform on it. Examples of actions provided by modern HCI are copy, rename, and delete a file; list the contents of a directory; start and stop a program; set the computer's date and time” (69).

info-aesthetics: “a theoretical analysis of the aesthetics of information access as well as the creation of new media objects that ‘aetheticize’ information processing” (217).information culture: (parallel to visual culture) “It includes the ways in which information is presented in different cultural sites and objects–road signs; displays in airports and train stations; television on-screen menus; graphic layouts of television news; the layouts of books, newspapers, and magazines; the interior designs of banks, hotels, and other commercial leisure spaces; the interface of planes and cars; and last but not least, the interfaces of computer operating systems and software applications” (13).

invisible effects: computer-enhanced scenes that fool the audience into believing that shots were produced with live actors on location, but are really composed of melange of digital and live action footage” (309). (See examples of invisible effects from movies like Twilight and Jack and Jill.)

narratology: “the branch of modern literary theory devoted to the theory of narrative, distinguishes between narration and description. Narration is those parts of the narrative that move the plot forward; description is those parts that do not” (216).

new media: "All existing media are translated into numerical data accessible for the computer. The results: graphics, moving images, sounds, shapes, spaces, and texts become computable, that is, simply sets of computer data. In short media become new media" (44).

Areas of new media according to Manovich:
principles of new media:

numerical representation: “All new media objects, whether they are created from scratch on computers or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations” (49).

modularity: “This principle can be called "fractal structure of new media.” Just as a fractal has the same structure on different scales, a new media object has the same modular structure throughout” (51).

automation: “Numerical coding of media (numerical representations) and modular structure of a media object (modularity) allow automating many operations involved in media creation, manipulation and access. Thus human intentionally can be removed from the creative process, at least in part” (53).

variability: “A new media object is not something fixed once and for all but can exist in different, potentially infinite, versions” (56).

transcoding: Manovich makes his final point on trans-coding. He explains that in new media, it’s almost all created, distributed, stored, and archived on computers. Computer are all written in code, and cannot be understood in it’s natural form by human beings. Over time, we have written the languages for computers to help us understand this data.

old media: "Old media involved a human creator who manually assembled textual, visual and/or audio elements into a particular composition or a sequence. This sequence was stored in some material, its order determined once and for all. Numerous copies could be run off from the master, and, in perfect correspondence with the logic of an industrial society, they were all identical" (56).

The Production Process

    In this video the author Lev Manovich, who is also a Professor of the Department of Visual Arts at University of California San Diego discusses his research. He talks about how he uses technology to study history and contemporary culture. He also demonstrates how technology has helped in gathering, and analyzing ancient art in a better way today. His expertise in the field of new media can help other scholars in looking at culture from a completely different perspective. Purely based on images, graphs, and few other properties Manovich capably presents us with his research methods.

Why is this book important to the field?

Although, Manovich approaches the subject of new media from a distinctly cinematic angle, it is still relevant to other branches of the field. Matt Barton, Assistant Professor of English at St. Cloud State University, said, "The book is quite dense, yet Manovich has a knack for providing memorable and well-written 'punch lines' to his more abstract paragraphs that really bring his points home. Even though I hadn't seen Man with a Movie Camera, an old film that serves as a sort of allegory for the book, I still found much in Manovich that is relevant to my own work as a compositionist, rhetorician, and videogame scholar."

Manovich's book focuses on the history of the field rather than speculating about the future. Manovich writes, "Most writings on new media are full of speculation about the future...This book, in contrast, analyses (sic) new media as it has actually developed until the present moment, while pointing to directions for new media artists and designers that have yet to be explored" (10). Bradley Dilger of the University of Florida recognizes this phenomenon in Manovich's text. He writes, "The book's focus on the present, and its overall coherence and attention to detail, differentiates The Language of New Media from other books in the field. Manovich's work builds a concise group of principles for analyzing new media. Its most important argument is the careful development of a record of the present state of new media which focuses on the complex relationship between cinema and new media."

"Manovich argues that computer and culture influence each other," Dilger continues. "Of course, this is not a groundbreaking assertion, but embedding that relationship into the theory of new media sets a tone for the text and distinguishes Manovich's work from others which portray the relationship deterministically."
  • Key Concepts


    “A library, a museum–in fact, any large collection of cultural data–is replaced by a computer database. At the same time, a computer database becomes a new metaphor that we use to conceptualize individual and collective cultural memory, a collection of documents or objects, and other phenomena and experiences” (214). Digital storage allows users to access the information in the archive through
    many different ways; for example, by artists, time period, or country of origin. For example, The National Archives in Washington D.C. features the digital vaults project. The Archives hold more than 10 billion records.


    "The gap in skills between professional and amateurs has become smaller. For instance, although employing Java or DHTML for Web design in the late 1990s was the domain of professionals, many Web users were also able to create basic Web pages using such programs as FrontPage, HomePage, or Word...[the gap] will always exist, because it is systematically maintained by professional producers themselves in order to survive...As 'professional' technology becomes accessible to amateurs, new media professionals create new standards, formats, and design expectations to maintain their status" (119-120).

    Information on the net is everlasting. “Thus, if in ‘meatspace’ we have to work to remember, in cyberspace we have to work to forget” (63). In “meatspace” (meaning the real world), we, as humans, spend most of our day trying to remember things. Where we last left the car keys, what time we need to go to a doctor’s appointment, or that we’re out of milk. In cyberspace (the opposite of meatspace), even if we delete items they can still be recovered most of the time. Google keeps tabs on all of our data...forever. A terrifying thought!

    In this book Manovich aims on putting less focus on familiar categories such as interactivity or hypermedia. He defines three related terms which are open, closed and branching-type interactivity. He writes about the "myth of interactivity", and also avoids using the word "interactive" since he finds the concept to be too broad to be truly useful.

    Manovich argues that interfaces are present through out many facets of our lives. “Increasingly the same metaphors and interfaces are used at work and at home, for business and for entertainment. For instance, the user navigates through a virtual space both to work and to play, whether analyzing scientific data or killing enemies in Quake” (215).

    In chapter six, Manovich throws light on aesthetics, and arrangement. He writes, "In the case of cinema, its physical interface is a
    particular architectural arrangement of a movie theater; its metaphor is a window opening up into a virtual 3D space" (26). Referring to
    cinema as an information space he asserts, "cinema presented us with familiar images of visible reality — interiors, landscapes, human
    characters — arranged within a rectangular frame. The aesthetics of these arrangements ranges from extreme scarcity to extreme
    density" (273). His belief is that contemporary information designers(of web pages) can learn from information displays of the past —
    particular films, paintings and other visual forms which follow the aesthetics of density.

    In the 1980s, Jaron Lanier, a California guru of VR, similarly saw VR
    technology as capable of completely
    objectifying, better yet, transparently merging with mental processes. His descriptions of its capabilities did not distinguish between internal mental functions, events and processes, and externally presented images. This is how, according to Lanier, VR can take over human memory: "You can play back your memory through time and classify your memories in various ways. You'd be able to run back through the experiential places you've been in order to be able to find people, tools" (72). “HCI is a system of controls to operate a machine; the printed word and cinema are cultural traditions, distinct ways to record human memory and human experience, mechanisms for cultural and social exchange of information" (82).
  • Throughout the text Manovich references the silent film Man with a Movie Camera (1929). The movie was shot through the perspective of the cameraman, a first for the time period. "Dziga Vertov can be thought of as a major ‘database filmmaker’ of the twentieth century. Man with a Movie Camera is perhaps the most important example of a database imagination in modern media art…Its subject is the filmmaker’s struggle to reveal (social) structure among the multitude of observed phenomena. its project is a brave attempt at an empirical epistemology that has but one tool–perception. The goal is to decode the world purely through the surface visible to the eye (natural eyesight enhanced, of course, by a movie camera)" (239-240).

Man with a Movie Camera

The work of a media designer has many stages. All of the pre-stages are necessary, yet the final product is what is valued most. "Regardless of whether a new media designer is working with quantitative data, text, images, video 3-D space, or combinations of them, she employs the same techniques--copy, cut, paste, search, composite, transform, filter" (118).


  • Lev Manovich compares simulation with representation, and writes that, "Simulation refers to technologies which aim to completely immerse
    the viewer within 
    the virtual universe. He gives examples of Baroque Jesuit churches, nineteenth century panorama, twentieth century
    movie theaters. In terms of Visual 
    illusionism, “Simulation refers to various computer methods for modeling other aspects of reality beyond
    its visual appearance: movement of physical objects, 
    shape changes over time in natural phenomena (water surface, smoke), motivations,
    behavior, speech and language comprehension in human beings" (42). 


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