The beginning of these thoughts came from Lev Manovich’s presentation on the last day of the International Symposium on Electronic Arts in Singapore. I find that Manovich frequently inspires thought and discussion: he offers himself up as a whipping dog, making the extreme statements that almost everyone has a problem with… 8 years ago it was “cinema is dead;” now it is “media criticism is dead.”
In short, Lev announced that he had finally broken in to the chests of the National Endowment for the Humanities and corporate sponsors to fund the study of media by returning media analysis to its sociological aspirations of the 70′s—though he didn’t put it in terms of the 70′s, instead it is a new concept that he has termed “Media Analytics” which is the new wave of criticism, he says. The brief of his argument is good: media criticism (in its more modern superficial modes… really pre-1970′s) is moored in the paradigm of broadcast media and has not updated itself, or critically dealt with the fact of the explosion of media—still treating media as a representation of culture as a sort of oligarchy, where it is assumed that a few big representations of culture are broadcast to major theaters or channels and criticism is done as example-based analysis of these few selections with at least the conceit that a survey of work has been completed. Whereas now, it is clear, that a survey of work is impossible… millions of videos, greater numbers of text publications, greater still numbers of images published— it is now impossible to claim to have viewed even a representative sample of culture’s media products. The way forward, says Lev, is to visualize the data, and basically to use algorithms and translations to look for patterns (though it seemed like many of his examples were more about creating novelty in data visualization).
My immediate critique, while listening, was obvious. First, it sounds like Media Philosopher playing at Sociology, which, in my mind, is like political demagogues playing at Sociology…. they tend to run fast and easy with the statistics and numerical sampling in favor of headlines… like Violent Video Games Cause Columbine and such. Basically I was suspicious of the newness of his new way. Second, there was a spuriousness to the conclusion about Cultural Analysis… his method seemed to assume the cultural importance of media from a broadcast model— flattening the difference between studying media and studying culture—but YouTube has not only changed the quantity of media, but its quality in relationship to culture… it is no longer so clear that studying media is the same as studying culture. Much of media no longer represents the work of an economics and an industry or group, nor does it become widely broadcast to influence a range of society.
But the most significant critique of Manovich’s talk came from an intelligent questioner at the end… a young man in the front asked, ‘Is visualization even necessary in an age when you have all the data… isn’t the perfect map a 1 to 1 representation?’ This is fundamental— a bombshell that I don’t think was recognized as a bombshell in that moment, but it pointed to the antiquity of the whole concept— the medieval quality of so much techno-utopianism in Manovich’s dream of data visualization, because isn’t his project, again, a Museo, an Encyclopedia, a representation of all data created in one unified whole for one person to interpret?
In his talk, Lev called the bulk of media criticism reactionary in its denial of the sociological methods of other social sciences and corporations… the data mining that has become the new (reverse engineering) empirical method. But what about Google Earth? A data set of everything, with no unified visualization (or any sort of translation of medium) but simply an interface of viewing any part of the dataset, anywhere, for anyone. Isn’t that the new paradigm of media? There is no more need of visualization of data, because we have all the data… instead the new need is interface to the data… the interface has replaced the visualization. I completely agree with Lev that Media Criticism has lazily abandoned its most important questions (like “does advertising work?”) in favor of using media as a stand-in for politics and theology; but the way ahead doesn’t lie with the old paradigms of the map and the Museo… because if we started building this great visualization of culture, as we modified and perfected it using every source of data available to us, we would find in its completion that we had, inch for inch, byte for byte, backed up the entire database to another harddrive.