The Language(s) of Digital Media Platforms

What follows is a thought experiment.  Comments/criticisms welcome.

In an influential 2001 book, The Language of New Media, theorist Lev Manovich presented his “attempt at both a record and a theory of the present” with regards to digital media.  He explains that his “aim” is to “describe and understand the logic driving the development of the language of new media.”  But he is quick to add,

I am not claiming that there is a single language of new media.  I use “language” as an umbrella term to refer to a number of various conventions used by designers of new media objects to organize data and structure the user’s experience.

The final product is an engaging and provocative study.  For the moment, however, I want to reflect on the notion of a “language” of digital media — it’s a suggestive metaphor.  Early in the book, Manovich explains his rationale for the term,

I do not want to suggest that we need to return to the structuralist phase of semiotics in understanding new media.  However, given that most studies of new media and cyberculture focus on their sociological, economic, and political dimensions, it was important for me to use the word language to signal the different focus of this work:  the emergent conventions, recurrent design patterns, and key forms of new media.

Manovich states explicitly that he is not claiming that there is a single, monolithic language of new media.  At a recent conference, media anthropologist John Postill made a similar point.  We do not have, he suggested,

a totalising ephocal ‘logic’ but rather ever more differentiated Internet ‘technologies, practices, contexts’ ([Miller and Slater] 2000: 3). The evidence provided in the reviewed texts strongly suggests that the Internet – and indeed the world – is becoming ever more plural and that no universal ‘logic of practice’ … is gaining ascendancy at the expense of all other logics.

I take his “logics” to be roughly parallel to Manovich’s “language,” although Postill is focusing on the practices that emerge from digital media, less so on the internal logic of the given platform.  The two, however, are surely interrelated.  So while we do not have a single language of digital media, we may still speak of languages or logics of particular platforms or interfaces.  Now in an associative leap, I want to connect this with the recent conversations surrounding Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.  Judging from reviews and interviews, I have not yet read the book, Deutscher has written a fascinating study.  More specifically though, it is his defense of linguist Roman Jakobson’s maxim concerning the difference languages make that I want to think with here.  According to Jakobson, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”  In other words, languages do not necessarily constrain a native speaker’s ability to think or comprehend certain concepts, but languages do force their speakers to make certain things explicit.  In Deutscher’s words,

Languages differ in what types of information they force the speakers to mention when they describe the world. (For example, some languages require you to be more specific about gender than English does, while English requires you to be more specific about tense than some other languages. Some require you to be more specific about color differences, and so on.) And it turns out that if your language routinely obliges you to express certain information whenever you open your mouth; it forces you to pay attention to certain types of information and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not need to be so attentive to. These habits of speech can then create habits of mind that go beyond mere speech, and affect things like memory, attention, association, even practical skills like orientation.

Now what if we press the language of digital media platforms/interfaces metaphor and ask if the Jakobson principle holds?  My initial thought is that something like the inverse of Jakobson’s principle ends up being more useful.  I could be wrong here, this is just an initial refection, but what seems most interesting about a particular platform is its specific limitations and how the user is constrained to work (often imaginatively) within those constraints.  Consider as an example Twitter’s 140 character limit or the limited symbols available for text messages.  Facebook allows greater flexibility and more media options for communication, but it is still limited.  Second Life has its own logic or language with its own particular possibilities and limitations.  And so on.

These limits are, of course, inevitable.  Every medium has its limits, nothing new there.  Yet it is worth asking what these limits are because there is always an implicit risk in becoming habituated to communication with a given medium and internalizing these limitations.  Both Manovich and Deutscher allude to this possibility.  In the excerpt above, Deutscher suggests that, “These habits of speech can then create habits of mind that go beyond mere speech, and affect things like memory, attention, association, even practical skills like orientation.”  For his part Manovich, considering the way the “language” of new media objectifies the mind’s operations, concludes,

. . . we are asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations.  Put differently, in what can be read as an updated version of French philosopher Louis Althusser’s concept of “interpellation,” we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own . . . . The cultural technologies of an industrial society — cinema and fashion — asked us to identify with someone else’s bodily image.  Interactive media ask us to identify with someone else’s mental structure.  If the cinema viewer, male and female, lusted after and tried to emulate the body of the movie star, the computer user is asked to follow the mental trajectory of the new media designer.

So to sum up:

Digital media platforms exhibit something like a particular language or logic.

Borrowing and tweaking Jakobson’s maxim, “Languages of digital media platforms differ essentially in what they cannot (or, encourage us not to) convey and not in what they may convey.”

For consideration:  What assumptions and limitations are internalized by the habitual use of particular digital media platforms?  What communicative structures could we be internalizing and what are their limitations?  Do we then import these limitations into other areas of our thinking and communication in the world?

Comments welcome.

2 thoughts on “The Language(s) of Digital Media Platforms

  1. In terms of internalizing technological limitations, do you mean situations like the fact that so many undergraduate college students incorporate text-speak into their formal papers and assignments? Or even day-to-day speech (I’ve heard people actually say “lol” and “wtf”).

    1. Good question, I’m in the process of figuring out what I mean! That certainly works as one example. Each platform/interface that we use is able to capture some element of our selves, but not others. I’m wondering if those elements that are left out also begin to drop out of our awareness in other areas of reality. So for example, what assumptions about relationships are inculcated in those who use dating websites? What view of knowledge is assumed by a search engine algorithm? What can be communicated about our experience through FB/Twitter — do we become more attentive to those sorts of experience and less to others? Clearly this is all still quite vague and remains a thought experiment … My sense is that the inner logic of media platforms, and the practices that emerge for users as they interact with those platforms, yield certain mental/bodily/affective habits that find their way into our general experience.

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