Manovich, Technology, and Culture

We are all of us immersed in a dense cultural web of which our identity is a reflection, and technology is an integral and formative component of this cultural web. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich signals as much when he reminds us that, “New media objects are cultural objects; thus, any new media object … can be said to represent, as well as help construct, some outside referent.” (15) The relationship is symbiotic – technology is a product of culture and at the same time it forms culture. It does this by influencing the way human beings interpret, or is it process, reality.

One place where culture and technology intersect quite significantly is in the metaphors we use to speak of the human mind or the human body. Notice, for example, that we are less likely to say that we “ran out of steam” (a decidedly industrial metaphor) than we are to say that we “crashed” (unless you are an Apple user in which case the “crash” metaphor is lost). We are also likely to speak of ourselves as having been “hardwired” or “programmed” for certain activities or tendencies. And we are more likely to say that we are “processing” an idea than we are to speak of “our wheels turning.” You can find a substantial database of metaphors for the mind drawn from the literary, philosophical and theological sources of the Western tradition at The Mind is a Metaphor.  These metaphors encourage us to understand ourselves in certain ways and not others. They influence the contours of our imagination. They may even lock us into certain patterns of thought and action – for example the algorithm as pattern for thought. What difference will it make, hypothetically, if the algorithm rather than the narrative is the patter of human thought? (225)

Manovich’s discussion of transcoding also explores this same interaction between culture and technology by pointing to two distinct layers of new media – the cultural layer and the computer layer. These two layers “influence each other,” or better yet, are “composited together.” The more cultural artifacts are transcoded into forms of new media and processed through computers, the more far-reaching the interaction of technology and culture. (46-47) In some respects I see this as an extension of Ong’s project. Ong sought to understand the way writing (and later its extension in print) shaped human consciousness and culture. Manovich is doing the same with new media.

At the macro level, Manovich tied the transition to new media with the move from an industrial to a post-industrial society. But what is the nature of the interaction? When, for example, “a computer – and computer culture in its wake – substitutes every constant with a variable” is this because postindustrial society has already encouraged every citizen to “construct her own custom lifestyle” or do these kinds of citizens arise from the programmability of new media?

More provocatively still, we can wrestle with Manovich’s question: “Do we want, or need, such freedom?”

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