John and I are this week’s discussion leaders. We’ve been emailing thoughts back and forth, and decided that each of us are posting our own thoughts/questions for the discussion on our respective blogs, and further commenting. So here are my thoughts:

We envision the discussion going along two interconnected strands: considering Manovich’s work on its own, with its broader implications, and then more narrowly with its implications for digital history. Since the book was published in 2001, one thing about which I’m curious is what others think of how it holds up. In my opinion, all in all it does, although some parts have changed over time.

All in all, I’ve liked the book. I don’t have formal background in media studies–but related more to the book than I initially expected.

One of my favorite things about the book was how Manovich related new media to other forms. His use of examples helped make these relations concrete. Manovich’s technique of going from the “inside” to the “outside” worked well–he brought us from the technology of the computer to what we see on the surface. His broad definition of new media–not just what is disseminated via computers but also what is produced (p. 19)–strengthens his analysis. As he notes, “the computer media revolution affects all stages of communication, including acquisition, manipulation, storage, and distribution; it also affects all types of media–texts, still images, moving images, sound, and spatial constructions” (p. 19).

This insight underpins much of what we have discussed so far this semester. The previous changes in media technology Manovich points out, such as cinema, television, and radio, have incrementally affected production of historical knowledge and its dissemination; the digital revolution has been just that, a revolution. It has forced us, as historians, to consider our craft in new ways.

So, some questions and discussion points that arise from this:

On page 7, Manovich discusses how the “previous cultural forms shaping [cinema] were still clearly visible and recognizable [in the early 20th century], before melting into a coherent language,” and relates that time in cinematic history to the present in new media, at least the present as of the book’s 2001 publication. Do we think the previous forms shaping new media have melted “into a coherent language,” particularly for digital history? Based on tweets from CHNM’s Sheila Brennan the other day (scroll to 10/13), and generally looking at what museums are doing online, I would argue that, particularly for history museums, new media is largely a reflection of the old.  Even Omeka takes the form of items, collections, and exhibitions, much like a physical museum or archive does. That platform’s major breakthrough is facilitation of digitization on the producer end and ease of access and information on the consumer end. So, are we any closer to a “coherent language” in 2011 than we were in 2001? Will we ever be, or is new media (and digital history) changing so fast–and is it by nature so varied–that we won’t have a “coherent language”?

On page 60, Manovich speaks of the “modern desire to externalize the mind.” He further states, “what before had been a mental process, a uniquely individual state, now became part of the public sphere.” This brought me immediately to think of technologies like Facebook and Twitter, particularly the idea that some people have ceased caring about privacy. Are these technologies the fulfillment of Manovich’s statements? How does this relate to the changes–and new demands–digital technology has brought to the history profession, particularly the (in my opinion, justified) demand that we make our work more transparent than before?

On page 65, page 97, and really throughout the book, Manovich talks about the windows present in the graphical user interface (GUI) first popularized by the Macintosh in 1984. Lately we’ve seen some moving away from that, as the iPhone, iPad, and now OSX Lion have adopted full-screen apps. But with those we still have the option of sliding between other full screens–for example, right now I have Tweetdeck open on another screen, a browser open on another, Zotero in another, Mail in another, and iTunes open in yet another. I can switch between them when I need (or, really, don’t need) a distraction. How has this affected how we interact with the computer? How will full-screen applications affect our digital history work? Will they help our end-user get more immersed in what we’re presenting?

On page 75, Manovich discusses how virtual reality enthusiasts envisioned a future 3-D Web. I’m curious as to the state of this. I haven’t heard much about things like Second Life in a while–even with places like the Smithsonian Latino Center making investments in a presence there. What do others know? Is there a future for a 3-D Web? Or will 3-D history projects be executed through more specific means, like Rome Reborn? What implications does the 3-D Web, or lack thereof, have for the way we do our work as historians?

Similarly, on page 86 Manovich discusses the importation of cinematic forms to new media–throughout, though, he largely discusses this through gaming. We are also seeing some applications of cinematic forms for digital history work, e.g., in reconstructing and representing spaces. Yet it seems a lot of digital history work is driven more by our older conventions of text-based media like the book and the article. How is all of this working together? To me, it seems we are using more cinematic technologies and techniques in concert with traditional means than previously–indeed, the ability to combine previously separate media is the power of new media for the history field.

In chapter 2, Manovich talks about (but does not bemoan) the idea of a person being a “prisoner” when it comes to media consumption. Even virtual reality constrains the body. How does this premise apply to the advent of mobile devices? Do these make us even more “prisoners” of the screen–we focus our attention on those small screens versus the real environment surrounding us? What about augmented reality?

On page 120 Manovich refers to the “overlap between producers and consumers,” a blurring of the lines. At the same time, he notes that as knowledge about particular aspects of programming becomes more widespread, programmers come up with more complex formats. We are seeing a parallel in history–we have the idea that digital technology democratizes history, allowing “everyone to do history,” but we are also seeing increased professionalization. After all, we in the class are all in advanced degree programs. Is it the case that everyone can do “the lower order tasks,” for lack of a better term, of history (e.g., transcription), while professionals are doing the “higher order” parts? How does this relate to what Manovich discusses? Is this how historical labor should be “divided”?

In parts of chapter 3, like page 130, Manovich discusses “authorship as selection.” On page 143 he states that “along with selection, compositing is the key operation of postmodern, or computer-based, authorship.” He contrasts that with the artistic ideal of starting with a blank canvas–while noting that collages, etc., have become more popular and accepted as art. For me, this evoked some of our discussions about the nature of authorship in the digital age–particularly Sharon’s argument that assembling an archive is a form of scholarship, with her caveat that many do not agree. Can we say that history work has generally consisted of “authorship as selection,” that we have always been “compositing,” and that new media is now making that more obvious? When writing a book or article we don’t just write what comes to mind. We assemble our evidence, and narrate an argument based upon it. I would like to discuss Manovich’s definition of compositing further in relation to other aspects of new media, particularly mashups and such, and the relations of compositing to digital history.

Along the same lines, in Manovich’s section on “digital compositing,” he notes that various images, sounds, etc., can be put together so that “the result is a single seamless image, sound, space, or scene.” With regard to images, Manovich notes on page 158 that “borders between different worlds do not have to be erased.” This has led to one of the dangers of new media for history–the questions of provenance and authenticity that we have discussed in class. As an example, Cohen and Rosenzweig point to an image of Lee Harvey Oswald seemingly jamming in the basement of a Dallas police station. One could argue we in digital history are trying to keep everything from being seamless. Where do we see this going in the future? Will this be even more difficult, or has new technology given us more tools to show provenance and authenticity?

In a similar vein, in chapter 4, Manovich argues that some digitally-produced 3-D images have been “too perfect,” and invokes the film Jurassic Park as an example–pointing out that the filmmakers had to make the dinosaurs less perfect. This made me think of depictions of the past on-screen that use computer-produced images. In many movies, and even in recent attempts to build “virtual cities” (to say nothing of historic sites)–are we seeing the past as being too clean, too perfect, when compared to reality? Is “dirtiness,” for lack of a better term, something we need to add to 3-D reconstructions? Even though I doubt someone would take, for example, Rome Reborn as what ancient Rome literally looked like, do we need to add, say, some dirt?

One section I particularly would like to discuss is Manovich’s discussion of the form, particularly his argument that narrative and database are “natural enemies.” As Andi notes, history needs narrative – even if not necessarily linear. As a case in point, I originally put a splash page on my planned site (before being rightfully smacked down). Is narrative the enemy of the database? I’m not so sure, and I feel (perhaps naively?) that we can reconcile what Manovich argues are two poles. For our work, we need to reconcile these. Do we turn to other forms of narrative, whatever those may be (no literary theorist here)? Or redefine what narrative is? As Manovich discusses on p. 243, have narrative and database yet successfully been merged “into a new form”?

What are some questions that others would like to discuss? Please feel free to post here, and we’ll make sure to address your questions and comments!