In Conversation with Lev Manovich

What follows is a totally real, not at all imaginary or fictional conversation between Lev Manovich, new media theorist and author of The Language of New Media, and yours truly.

CP: Good evening, Mr. Manovich. Before we begin, let me just thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

LM: It’s my pleasure! I’m always thrilled to discuss my work with brilliant young people such as yourself.

CP: Wow, what a compliment! Thank you!

LM: No, I really mean it! It’s a tremendous honour to be meeting you.

CP: You’re too kind, Mr. Manovich, but I’ll have to stop you now or else people will start to think that I’m just making all of this up.

Let’s just begin the interview, shall we? In “Part II: The Interface” of The Language of New Media, you introduce the terms “interfacing” and “cultural interfaces,” what on earth are you going on about?

LV: “In the 1990s, as the Internet progressively grew in popularity, the role of a digital computer shifted from being a particular technology (a calculator, a symbol processor, an image manipulator, etc.) to being a filter to all culture, a form through which all kinds of cultural and artistic production is being mediated. […] I use the term “cultural interfaces” to describe human-computer-culture interface: the ways in which computers present and allows us to interact with cultural data (i.e. texts, photographs, films, music, virtual environments). Cultural interfaces include the interfaces used by the designers of Web sites, CD-ROM and DVD titles, multimedia encyclopedias, online museums and magazines, computer games and other new media cultural objects” (75-76, 80).

CP: So, to paraphrase, “interfacing” is the act of interacting with an electronic device like a laptop or a portable tablet (for example: clicking the mouse to open a folder on your computer or using your finger to play an app on your iPad), while the concept of “cultural interfaces” refers to the ways in which the user’s interaction with the “cultural data” on the screen of their device is framed and organized by the device on which they are accessing this data.

Given that the emergence of the “cultural interface” has been greatly facilitated by the turn towards digital media and the coming of the Internet age, could we then say that the “cultural interface” is a fairly novel and revolutionary idea?

LM: “The answer is of course no.” (87)

CP: Oh…

LM: “My theory is that the language of cultural interfaces is largely made up from the elements of other, already familiar cultural forms […] Users are able to “acquire” new cultural languages, be it cinema a hundred years ago, or cultural interfaces today, because these languages are based on previous and already familiar cultural forms. In the case of cinema, it was theater, magic lantern shows and other nineteenth century forms of public entertainment. Cultural interfaces in their turn draw on older cultural forms such as the printed word and cinema” (81, 87).

CP: What you’re saying is that new forms of technology like eBooks aren’t necessarily new inventions per se, rather they are just building on or mimicking preexisting cultural objects?

LM: “Cultural interfaces [like electronic books] rely on our familiarity with the “page interface” while also trying to stretch its definition to include new concepts made possible by a computer. […] The conceptual development of the page in computer media can also be read in a different way — not as a further development of a codex form, but as a return to earlier forms such as the papyrus roll of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Scrolling through the contents of a computer window or a World Wide Web page has more in common with unrolling than turning the pages of a modern book” (84).

CP: In “The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-space,” Johanna Drucker makes a similar observation about the electronic book’s tendency to replicate the features and functions of old forms of print documents, noting that “the designs of the graphical interfaces for [various] e-books […] have all attempted to simulate in flat screen space certain obvious physical characteristics familiar from traditional books [and scrolls]” (3). For Drucker, the eBook’s imitation of the codex is largely prompted by nostalgia on the part of the readers and designers. What’s your take on the parallels between “human-computer interfaces” and “traditional cultural objects”?

LM: “The history of human-computer interface is that of borrowing and reformulating, or, to use new media lingo, reformatting other media, both past and present: the printed page, film, television. But along with borrowing conventions of most other media and eclectically combining them together, HCI designers also heavily borrowed “conventions” of human-made physical environment […]. And, more than any media before it, HCI is like a chameleon which keeps changing its appearance, responding to how computers are used in any given period” (95).

CP: In your view then, it’s not so much a case of nostalgia, but a case of remixing the old and adapting it to better fit the present.

Any last words on the future of the “cultural interface”?

LM: “Today the language of cultural interfaces is in its early stage, as was the language of cinema a hundred years ago. We don’t know what the final result will be, or even if it will ever completely stabilize […]. Given that computer language is implemented in software, potentially it can keep on changing forever. But there is one thing we can be sure of. We are witnessing the emergence of a new cultural meta-language, something which will be at least as significant as the printed word and cinema before it” (97-98).

CP: Thank you for answering my questions, Mr. Manovich!

LM: No problem, call on me any time you’re in desperate need of content for the blog!

Works Cited

Drucker, Johanna. “The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-space.” Syracuse University. History of the Book Seminar. 25 April 2003. Lecture. Web. accessed on 2 March 2014.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002. Ebook.

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DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

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