Does “media” still exist?

The completely revised and updated version of my manuscript Software Takes Command will appear in print 2013. Below are the two opening pages from this new version.

Manetas.girls in nike 2005
Miltos Manetas. Girls in Nike. 2005.

I have called my earlier book-length account of the new cultural forms enabled by computerization The Language of New Media. It was completed in 1999. By that time, the process of adoption of software-based tools in all areas of professional media production was almost completed, and “new media art” was in its heroic and vibrant stage offering many possibilities not yet touched by commercial software and consumer electronics.

Ten years later, most media became “new media.” The developments of the 1990s have been disseminated to the hundreds of millions of people who are writing blogs, uploading photos and videos to media sharing sites, and use free media authoring and editing software tools which ten years earlier would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Thanks to the practices pioneered by Google, the world is now used to run on web applications and services that have never been officially completed but remain forever remain in Beta stage. Since these applications and services run on the remote servers, they can be updated anytime without consumers having to do anything – and in fact, Google is updating is search algorithm code as often as few times a day; similarly, Facebook is also updating its code daily. Welcome to the world of permanent change—the world that is now defined not by heavy industrial machines that change infrequently, but by software that is always in flux.

Why should humanists, social scientists, media scholars and cultural critics care about software? Because outside of certain cultural areas such as crafts and fine art, software has replaced diverse array of physical, mechanical, and electronic technologies used before 21st century to create, store, distribute and access cultural artifacts.

When you play a video game, explore an interactive installation in a museum, design a building, create special effects for a feature film, design a web site, use a mobile phone to read a movie review or to view the actual movie, and carry out thousands of other cultural activities, in practical terms, you are doing the same thing—using software. Software has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and our imagination—a universal language through which the world speaks, and a universal engine on which the world runs. What electricity and combustion engine were to the early 20th century, software is to the early 21st century.

This book is concerned with “media software” - programs such as Word, PowerPoint, Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Final Cut, Firefox, Blogger, Wordpress, Google Earth, Maya and 3Ds Max. These programs enable creation, publishing, sharing, and remixing of images, moving image sequences, 3D designs, texts, maps, interactive elements, as well as various combinations of these elements such as web sites, interactive applications, motion graphics, virtual globes, and so on. Media software also includes web browsers such as Firefox and Chrome, email and chat programs, news readers, and other types of software applications whose primary focus is accessing media content (although they sometimes also include some authoring and editing features.)

These software tools for creating, interacting with, and sharing media represent a particular subset of application software (including web applications) in general. Given this, we may expect that all these tools inherit certain “traits” common to all contemporary software. Does this mean that regardless of whether you are working on designing a space, creating special effects for a feature film, designing a web site, or making information graphics, your design process may follow the similar logic? Are there some structural features which motion graphics, graphic designs, web sites, product designs, buildings, and video games share since they are all designed with software? More generally, how interfaces and the tools of media authoring software are shaping the contemporary aesthetics and visual languages of different media forms?

Behind these questions investigated in this book lie another theoretical question. This question drives the book narrative and motivates my choice of topics. What happens to the idea of a “medium” after previously media-specific tools have been simulated and extended in software? Is it still meaningful to talk about different mediums at all? Or do we now find ourselves in a new brave world of one single monomedium, or a metamedium (to borrow the term of the book’s key protagonist Alan Kay)?

In short: What is “media” after software?

Does “media” still exist?

This book is a theoretical account of media software and its effects on the practice and the very concept of media. Over the last two decades, software has replaced most other media technologies that emerged in the 19th and 20th century. Today it is ubiquitous and taken for granted—and yet, surprisingly, few people know about its history and the theoretical ideas behind its development. You are likely to know the names of Renaissance artists who popularized the use of linear perspective in western art (Brunelleschi, Alberti) or early 20th centuries inventors of modern film language (D.W. Griffith, Eisenstein, etc.)—but I bet you don’t know where Photoshop comes from, or Word, or any other media tool you are using everyday. More importantly, you probably don’t know why these tools were invented in the first place.

What is the intellectual history of media software? What was the thinking and motivations of the key people and research groups they were directing—J.C. Licklider, Ivan Sutherland, Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, Nicholas Negroponte—who between 1960 and late 1970s created most concepts and practical techniques that underlie today's media applications? As I discovered—and I hope you will share my original surprise in reading my analysis of the original texts by these people—they were as much media theoreticians as computer engineers. I will discuss their media theories and test them in view of the digital media developments in the subsequent decades. As we will see, the theoretical ideas of these people and their collaborators turn to work very well today, helping us to better understand contemporary software we use to create, read, view, remix, and share.

Welcome, then, to the “secret history” of our software culture—secret not because it was deliberately hidden but because until recently, exited by all the rapid transformations cultural computerization was bringing about, we did not bother to examine its origins. This book will try to convince you that such an examination is very much worth your time.

Its title is homage to a seminal 20th century book Mechanization Takes Command: a Contribution to Anonymous History (1947) by architectural historian and critic Sigfried Giedion. In this work Giedion traces the development of mechanization in industrial society across a number of domains, including systems of hygiene and waste management, fashion, agricultural production, and food system, with separate sections of the book devoted to bread, meat and refrigeration. Much more modest in scope, my book presents episodes from the history of “softwarization” (my neologism) of culture between 1960 and 2010, with a particular attention to media software—from the original ideas which led to its development to its current ubiquity.