Sunday, June 29, 2014

Re: [Yasmin_discussions] ART, NEW MEDIA, AND SOCIAL MEMORY

Hi everyone,

I'm really looking forward to hearing the perspectives of folks on this list about the risk of obsolescence that endangers so many forms of contemporary creativity. But first I have to offer a special thanks to Roger Malina for inviting Rick and me to this discussion. Roger has worked hard to keep this issue on the frontburner of our field for the past decade, and the continued pressure he has exerted has made the doom of our collective enterprise a bit less inevitable.

And now I'll repay my debt to Roger by taking issue with him (or more properly with the report he cites):

Roger wrote:
> a recent report chaired by Noah Wardrip-Fruin [uses] the term 'computational media' which i think is
> a much better term than 'new media" !!
I like "computational media" better than "digital media." As Rick Rinehart points out in a chapter of Re-collection called "Variability Machines," Babbage's original computer wasn't digital--in fact it wasn't even electrical. Yet while they are meant to be more future-proof than the apparently relative term "new media," I believe these phrases throw the baby out with the bathwater by focusing on the gadgets instead of their revolutionary implications.

For me, the "new" in "new media" refers not to the latest gizmos available now but to expressive technologies of any period that outpace their culture's ability to control them. The aesthetic application of optics in the fifteenth century destabilized the church's stranglehold on orthodox representation, just as the creative use of packet switching in the twentieth subverted a network originally intended for command and control. By contrast, television was never "new media" because its rollout was carefully controlled by the reigning media monopolies.

It makes no more sense to reduce new media to "computational media" or that hideous term "information and communication technologies" than it does to reduce the Renaissance to "optical and painterly technologies" or Impressionism to "brush art."

Why does this matter? I think the answer is implicit in the "Envisioning the Future of Computational Media" report Roger cites. Noah and his co-authors identify the proliferation of these media across "video games, smartphone apps, ebooks, social media, and more," and rightly tell us we have to interview creators if we want to understand the birth and therefore the continuing survival of each work:

> Developing industry best practices around archiving current "closing kit" materials with third parties, expanding to include records of the development process....

Importantly, the authors also point to the social context that is so critical for the development and sustenance of these works:

> important work has been done by amateur archivists....The field must find ways to address often-ephemeral, but historically key, elements that exist "outside" computational media works, such as the work of fan and modification communities as well as marketing materials and critical reviews and responses....

This is where I think the term "computational media" doesn't help matters, as to me it implies a mechanistic essence that ignores the de-centered social networks that are the most important product of contemporary media from Snapchat to Second Life. Conserving "computational media" sounds like a matter of getting a bunch of computer science PhDs in a room to create the ultimate emulator. Yet maintaining software and hardware alone would do nothing to preserve Access Grid performances, World of Warcraft guilds, or user contributions to websites like net.flag or PostSecret.

Of course, the same ephemeral de-centering that makes new media revolutionary also makes them prone to obsolescence, as they slip through the traditional cultural institutions like water through a sieve. So in Re-collection Rick and I have chosen a different term that suggests a proactive approach to ephemerality: variable media. Here the idea is to work with those involved in a work's creation to identify possible ways it can successfully transform to accommodate future changes in technology and social context. We use the term "variable media" to apply to more than computational media, because we think the same general preservation strategies that work for net art and iPad apps can apply to performance, wetware, and installation art as well.

> We can imagine a future in which authors can make citations to specific states of computational media works and readers can "follow" those citations to versions of the work, in the same state, running in emulation.

Just as an aside, I recommend a protocol for this in the essay "Death by Wall Label" in Christiane Paul's book New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, mirrored here:

So do others on the list agree that we need to look beyond software and hardware to preserve contemporary creativity, or am I just making a fuss over semantics?


Jon Ippolito
Professor of New Media
Co-director, Still Water
Director, Digital Curation graduate program
The University of Maine
406 Chadbourne
Orono, ME 04469-5713
Tel: 207 581-4477
Fax: 207 581-4357
Twitter: @jonippolito
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