Somthing Old, Something New, Something Borrowed . . .
The opening prize fight at last week's New Media, Technology, and the Humanities conference, was the big match-up between Lev Manovich and Erkki Huhtamo who were duking it out over whether or not New Media was really that "new."
Huhtamo focused on the question of "What's Old about New Media?" He analyzed conventions from the iconography of new media that went back to traditional topoi that were catalogued by Curtius. He began with the example of women dressed up in technological hardware, starting from the Modes Parisiennes of 1865 and ending with last year's SIGGRAPH Cyberfashion show. Throughout his talk, Huhtamo expressed his enthusiasm for the "losers" of history, alternative corporate "cryptohistories," cyclically recurring phenomena, and the counterfactual histories that subvert teleological interpretations of the evolution of new technologies.
Perhaps I am naturally a nostalgic trivialist, but Huhtamo's approach appeals to my narrative sensibilities. For example, I'll confess to enjoying books like When Old Technologies Were New, The Victorian Internet, and the novel Loving Little Egypt, which are all about turn-of-the-last-century technologies.
Lev Manovich, in contrast, asserted that New Media did more than simply assimilate existing media, because computing media work differently at a fundamental level. For example, such "metamedia" were designed with features like "search" and "zoom" in mind and reflected a vision for algorithm design that was unlike any previously occurring phenomenon. Manovich asserted that this paradigm shift could be illustrated by contemporary architectural practices that use digital tools or the metamedia on display at a current exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
My attitude about New Media is informed by my own idiosyncratic family history in which users of a new technology (computers) can trace the origins of their practices to an old technology. Specifically, I'm from a failed pipe organ dynasty and the granddaughter of the builder of the World's Largest Pipe Organ in Atlantic City. To see where I'm coming from, see the image of the wiring of a pipe organ console above from a family album and the image of an unfortunately worded fake ad below from the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ Society. It's a connection also made by Neil Stephenson in Cryptonomicon.
Indeed, my archetypal ancestor, the inventor Seibert Losh, was recently memorialized by my cousin, the artist Josefa Vaughan. So, of course, I had to ask Huhtamo about the topoi of similar cryptohistories about defunct auditory cultures that were wiped out by the talkies and yet are relevant to the current debate about music sampling. He agreed that, although his own specialty was visual culture, this archeology of auditory culture was a growing area in New Media studies.
Mark Hansen from the University of Chicago tried to float like a butterfly rather than sting like a bee later in the day at the conference. It turns out that he's a different Mark Hansen from the one covered in this blog, albeit one who also studies digital culture. Hansen asserted that "New Media" were distinctly new because the "user/participant" was a "co-creator of the aesthetic object." However, Hansen's theoretical history focused on Claude Shannon as a progenitor, while Alan Kay was the focus of Manovich's talk.
Labels: auditory culture