We need a better term for “new media”

While Manovich makes some very interesting points in “The Language of New Media,” I would argue that his approach to the topic is fundementally flawed and (irony of ironies!) it’s all a problem of language. Namely, the use of the term “new media.” Manovich begins by asking “What is new media?…Where shall we stop?” without considering the possibility that the reason new media is so hard to define has to with the fact that “new media” is an inherently vague and confusing term. For the sake of his argument, Manovich limits his use of “new media” to digital media, including “the Internet, Web sites, computer multimedia, computer games, CD-ROMS and DVD” etc. etc. (19) So what’s wrong with calling it, say, digital media?

To a certain extent, I can understand Manovich’s choice to use the term. At the time of his writing, “new media” was a vogue term, and it’s still thrown around pretty casually today. As we learn in the second section of the excerpt, there was a lot of general confusion about what “new media” technologies were and what they could do. Manovich attempts to clarify the issue by outlining the characteristics he believes to be unique to “new media.” He obviously senses the need for more clear, precise language when dealing with the “objects” of these technologies. He even goes so far as to argue that media studies ought to be renamed “software studies” (49).

But here lies the other problem with Manovich’s essay, and the reason he refuses to abandon the term “new media.” He’s trying to position “new media” as the new “revolutionary” phase in a grand narrative about technological progress–taking a cue from Marshall McLuhan, he positions “new media” as the next big step in the process of “media evolution” (35-6). New media is “new” because it’s everything “old media” could never be!! Right? Sort of. The glaring issue with setting up a new/old opposition (disregarding for the moment the huge, huge postmodernist red flag raised by the thought of linear “media evolution”) is that one day “new media” will no longer be new. Then what? To assume that digital technology is the be-all, end-all of media is (to use a delightful new term I learned from Jason Brown’s lecture) to Vannevar in the worst possible way. No matter how you feel about metanarratives, “new media” just isn’t a sufficient term to describe the technological/artistic/cultural phenomena Manovich attempts to define.

For further debate (and confusion, and misinformation) about the value of the term “new media,” check out the talk page for the Wikipedia “New Media” entry I stumbled across as I was writing this post (which includes a proposal that the entries on “new media” and “digital media” be merged. Interesting!)

3 responses to “We need a better term for “new media”

  1. I absolutely agree that the difficulty in naming something “new media” or “old media” boils down to the language itself – such terms are far too vague to characterize the nature of media.

    I also like your point regarding the fact that “new media” does not remain “new.” The terms “new” and “old” do not allow room for change or growth, nor do they allow for the passage of time. I see these terms as fitting along a spectrum, a continuum of evolution. Something that is “new” will eventual become “old,” although it may be forever “new” for the time.

    Calling it instead something like “digital” media is contingent upon the definition of “digital” which, I guess, is subject to change. But I feel like, with any word attached to the beginning of “media,” we will run into problems of definition. “New” means different things to different people, just as “digital” means different things to different people. I do think that “digital” more accurately, or perhaps more effectively, addresses the changes that can occur over time.

  2. Although I can see your objections to the term “new media,” I would say that at the time, it was as good of a term as any. It clearly had to be adapted because it will not always be new, but I actually liked that “new media” was somewhat ambiguous. The term worked for me because it was for such a large section of media unlike anything we’ve ever had before that iit had o cover a lot of ground. Now, it seems obvious to make the switch over to referring to it as “digital media” because it is both more accurate and just as encompassing as “new media.” Just to reiterate. Even though new media is vague, I think that it served a purpose in the evolution of the term.

  3. Good point about the fact that “new media” served a purpose in the evolution of the term. I like that.