cover art from The New Media Reader

Part the First: A Tale of Two Readers

As with all readers, The New Media Reader (Wardrip-Fruin/Montfort editors) seeks to collect seminal works in a given discipline -- a sampling of important texts that represent the least someone might want to know in order to be conversant in that particular field. The challenge of compiling a reader for new media is twofold:
1. new media is embryonic compared to philosophy or literary criticism or even polo.
2. new media encompasses so many different disciplines, it's difficult to decide which texts from which fields are definitive and worthy of inclusion.

The New Media Reader and Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality (Packer/Jordan editors) were both published within a year of each other, and comparing these two readers is instructive. Many of the same authors appear in both books -- Licklider, Engelbart, Berners-Lee, Norbert Wiener, Ivan Sutherland, Vannevar Bush, Myron Krueger, Alan Kay, and Ted Nelson from the sciences camp; Nam June Paik, Roy Ascott, Bill Viola, Allan Kaprow, and William Burroughs from the arts camp. There seems to be a general consensus that "core" stewardship of the new media/multimedia vision passed from Bush to Engelbart to Sutherland to Nelson (to Berners-Lee by a sort of happy accident).

More interesting to consider are the authors who are unique to each collection. Packer and Jordan start with Wagner and proceed along a more academically recognized fine arts tack. Maholy-Nagy makes an early appearance talking about pre-Cirque du Soleil immersive performance. John Cage puts in a word for interactive/immersive concerts. And the book's forward and afterward are written by pop art icons William Gibson and Laurie Anderson. In this case "Multimedia" (as opposed to "New Media") implies a focus on immersion, virtuality, and sensory engagement.

The authors who are unique to The New Media Reader are even more telling. From Borges' "Garden of Forking Paths" to the experimental combinatory texts of the Oulipo to the more contemporary hypertext literature ideas of Michael Joyce, the artistic emphasis is less on sensory immersion and more on what Ted Nelson simply calls "branching" -- what has since come to be known as "non-linearity." In addition, Deleuze and Guattari (in)famously offer their paradigm of the rhizome, McLuhan lays his media mojo cornerstone, and Baudrillard wrestles with the sociological ramifications of true interactivity (or the lack thereof).

In choosing to supplement the core technical writings of the early computing pioneers with essays on cognition, media theory, and human-computer interface design, "The New Media Reader" focuses less on what we are using these machines to make, and more on how these machines are augmenting and remaking us (not in some sort of surface-level, sci-fi cyborg way; but in a fundamental, cognitive way). This symbiotic man-machine relationship is at the heart of what Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort consider "New Media." Vannevar Bush would have surely agreed, although I'm not sure Wagner would have cared.

So much for the obligatory book review. Now for the personal response...

Part the Second: Human-Computer Interface; It's the Humans, Stupid.

The New Media Reader is divided into four sections that proceed more or less chronologically from 1941 to 1995. My first thought is that the book should have been published in hypertext form on a CD-ROM. This thought probably occurred to the editors as well, who have attempted to circumvent the linearity of printed text with these little "jump to" icons that cross-reference related topics scattered throughout the book. But their system is forced in the printed medium and it just winds up being confusing. The original authors themselves are already referencing figures and footnotes within their own texts, and they further reference extant texts (some of which happen to appear earlier in the reader itself). On top of those root level connections, the editors proceed to make their own meta-connections. And then I'm left to make my meta-meta-connections of their meta-connections.

All of which is appropriately "new media," but the argument put forth as a recurring theme throughout these texts is that new media provide us with better ways to organize complex data. The book's design proves the failings of old media to do this, but it would have been cool had the book also been a case study in hypertexted scholarship, "proof text" of the proposals put forth in the book. But maybe that's asking too much. After all, the publisher is MIT Press, not MIT Systems.

As I read, I kept trying to find a unifying theme in all of these texts, a single thread from which I could hang so many seemingly unrelated pieces. For instance, what does Allan Kaprow's piece on Happenings have to do with Ivan Sutherland's description of his early GUI system? The thread in most cases is "heretofore novel human-systems interaction."

But is this the "true/actual" central thread running through all of new media, or is this just the particular thread on which these editors chose to focus, based on their own personal interests and interpretations?

That question gave rise to an even more disturbing question along the same lines. Had these "recently canonized" authors:
1. accurately prophesied an immutable future that came to pass?
2. correctly identified the inherent nature of the media?
or 3. made creative predictions that actually functioned as self-fulfilling blueprints to those technologists who succeeded them and implemented their prophesies?

back to top ^


Ted Nelson himself came to agree with option #3: "We must acknowledge that we are inventing presentational techniques in the new media, not merely transporting or transposing particular things into them, because they seem right. The psychological constructs of man-machine systems may turn out to be largely arbitrary." With this hunch in mind, I became less interested in those predictions that proved true (using a mouse daily, it's hard to re-live the "gee whiz" epiphany of the mouse concept), and more interested in those predictions that missed the mark (Bush's hard drive storage medium of the future... Microfiche!)

Even more interesting was the personal enthusiasm, gravity, and perspicacity of those early computer visionaries. Yes, Vannevar Bush described the first non-punchcard, human-computer interface; but he also wrote, "Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems." Sure, Alan Turing is the Turing Test guy, but he also considered whether or not God could (and would) create a soul with the ability to indwell a computer. True, Norbert Wiener coined the term "cybernetics," but he also wrote, "The moral problem of machines differs in no way from the old moral problem of magic. The fact that the machine follows the law of nature and that magic is supposed to be outside of Nature is not an interesting distinction." Yes, Ted Nelson coined the term "hypertext," but he also wrote, "I think presentation by computer is a branch of show business and writing, not of psychology, engineering or pedagogy... We must create our brave new worlds with art, zest, intelligence, and the highest possible ideals."

Compare Nelson's infectious optimism with Baudrillard's cynical opinion that to communicate via mass media for whatever idealistic purpose is still an act of control rather than exchange, and you can see we've come a long way. Nevertheless, the moral challenge remains -- am I taking proper advantage of these hard-won new media tools I've inherited, or am I taking them for granted? Am I exploring novel ways of modeling my own cognitive processes via multiform systems, or am I merely blogging? Am I creating net environments that dialogue instructively and emotionally with my users, or am I tossing up text-only conceptual net art pieces bemoaning the impossibility of mediated intimacy?

The final section of The New Media Reader covers the emergence of the web, and its selections seem less trustworthily canonical since they were written only a few years ago. Comics pundit Scott McCloud is a personal favorite and fits well given the editors' particular emphasis on narrative. "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat," a documentation of an early MUD community, seems more incidental (but no less interesting for being so).

A major advantage of The New Media Reader is that it allows direct access to the source texts of the nascent canon. Such direct access is particularly advantageous since the canon is barely established, it spans so many different disciplines, and its implications are still so little understood. Ultimately, the texts speak for themselves. Although each text is prefaced by an editorial introduction that highlights particularly "relevant" themes, most texts nevertheless proceed to cover other "side" themes, themes that might have appeared equally important had they instead been editorially foregrounded.

I expected to find the scientific texts applicable to my interaction design interests and the theoretical texts applicable to my net art interests. But this was by no means the rule. Bill Viola waxes eloquent about Tesla's "transmission of intelligence" (a very "experience design" koan); and Alan Turing offhandedly offers the following net art gem (in the context of programming a computer to "act" human): "Intelligent behaviour presumably consists in a departure from the completely disciplined behavior involved in computation, but a rather slight one, which does not give rise to random behavior, or to pointless repetitive loops." Replace "intelligent behavior" with "engaging hypermedia," and you have a blueprint for building not just an interesting Eliza bot, but any piece of generative/reactive software art.

The take-aways from The New Media Reader are abundant, but you do have to dig for them. And one man's immersive theatre ceiling may be another man's hypertext literature floor. To its credit, this edition evinces a collector's fetishism for ephemera -- ancient softwares inhabit its companion CD-ROM and many largely irrelevant illustrations grace its pages. Ostensibly, young Joe Coder might glean some mystical/conceptual revelation from this kind of minutiae; but I think I recognize the glad hand of techno-fetishism for its own sake at work here, and that's fine. It actually gives the book a sort of retro-geek cred.

If I came away with a single unified theory of new media, it's that there is no single unified theory of new media. And so the fun of The New Media Reader, as suggested by its editors, is not in trying to hierarchize everything (which is a monumentally dizzying if not impossible task), but to take what you can use, apply it to your current project(s), and leave the rest for a later date or a different context. This time through, I took away a renewed respect for new media's ability to augment our thinking, and a heightened awareness that we are still on a path largely of our own devising. (And I got a good idea for a net art piece that combines Turing's semi-random seed generator with Sol LeWitt's minimalistic manual combinatorics, but that's another story.)

- Curt Cloninger (July 2003)


This review originally appeared in Tekka, Volume 1, Number 3.