New Media Renewed

Jay David Bolter has been writing and theorizing about new media since it actually deserved to be called “new.” If his Writing Space (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991) isn’t on your shelf, you’re missing a big chunk of literary thought, internet history, and hypertext theory—a strong precursor to all of the below. As he told me in 2001,

On the question of linearity vs. hypertextuality as modes of thinking and learning, I’m an agnostic. I don’t know how we could decide whether associative (hypertextual) or linear thinking is more ‘natural’. Both hypertexts and linear texts are highly artificial forms of writing. Both have to be learned. The idea that hypertext is natural can be refuted simply by browsing through a random sample of websites. We see that people do not find it easy or natural to create good sites — either of the hierarchical or associative kind.

At the time, Bolter had just finished Remediation: Understanding New Media (The MIT Press, 1999) in which he and Richard Grusin help update some of McLuhan’s ideas for the 21st century. His latest, The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media (The MIT Press, 2019), continues his deep thought about broad issues of millennial media. Starting with our current political moment, Bolter looks back at the megatrends that landed us here and ahead to where they’re taking us next, including everything from McLuhan and modernism to sampling and remix.

In her book, Animal, Vegetable, Digital: Experiments in New Media Aesthetics and Environmental Poetics (University of Alabama Press, 2016), Elizabeth Swanstrom takes an object-oriented view of new media aesthetics and the environment. Swanstrom breeches boundaries and collapses binaries, seeing code as performance instead of infrastructure and analogous to the “mechanizations of nature,” including an analysis of the revelations of William Gibson‘s Agrippa (1992). She writes, “Digital art collapses subjectivity and combines it with expressions of nature; as such, it creates networked instances of subjectivity—ecological portraits with no subjective center” (p. 146). Her goal lies in gaming conservation and fostering ecological holism.

Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation (Stanford University Press, 2017) by Dennis Tenen presents yet another take on the many facets of new media. Again looking at code as a kind of performance, Tenen calls us to investigate the processes of its encoding. None of these media or their parts are static, yet few of us know where and how they move. I keep thinking about the search engine I often use that claims—unlike its competitors—that it doesn’t track my search terms or their results. How the hell would I know? Are you using a private window? Private to whom? None of these processes are transparent enough for us to know.

In a section called “The Medium is Not the Message,” Tenen writes, “In examining the material conditions of digital representation, we find format—a quality distinct from both medium and content—to emerge as a political construct that governs the physical affordances of communication” (p. 192). These texts are not plain. Tenen wants them to be.