The genealogy of computer as an expressive medium

Readings on new media

The new digital medium of the 21th century, like the medium of film 100 years earlier, is so myriad in its forms that only trying to trace its history would generate confusion.

The appearance of the New Media Reader was a landmark in the history of a somewhat ghettoised field which is now flourishing into the mainstream domain. For the first time, a single reader managed to trace the path that led to the development of the cyberspace as we know it today.

The book also reflects on several topics associated with the difficult history of new media. One being the issue of cultural institutions privileging traditional art over new media art. “It is their responsibility to select what makes it into our cultural memory and what is left behind. They should start treating those who have expressed fundamental ideas of human-computer interaction as much as major artists as the people who revolutionised, for example, art in the Nineteenth century.”¹

If we define the domain of new media as the study of new cultural objects, we should also seek to examine what are these new cultural objects. In The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass. — The MIT Press, 2001), Lev Manovich describes these objects as “all the objects that are distributed and exhibited solely using digital technology (Websites, computer games, Virtual Reality, etc.). TV programs, movies, magazines, and books do not fall into this category because they make use of computer technology for production but not for actual distribution. Yet this definition needs to be revised every few years, because as technology progresses more and more objects will start relying on new media for distribution.”²

Will we ever se a complete transition of all old-media into interactive digital data?

To some extent, this process has been happening for years without us being able to stop it and analyse it in detail. Take, for example, representational images. These used to be something one would only stare at. If we scroll though Flickr today, we can do a lot more than just looking at pictures. They can be downloaded in different formats, liked, shared, commented, emailed, screen-grabbed, you get the idea.

“While visually an image still appears as a single continuous field, in fact it is broken into a number of regions with hyperlinks connected to these regions.”³

The New Media Reader also provides its opinion on new media thought of as computerisation of what was possible to be executed by human draftsmen years ago. Algorithms, in a way, could be just speeding up what a person could have done, although much more slowly. But in some cases, speeding up algorithms also impacts on the qualitative characteristics of the final product. Such as in the case of computer games. These are constituted by complex interactions between AI, visual, and sound algorithms – a collaboration that would never be possible in real-time if a human were to execute those steps.

3D Open-world games such as Forza Horizon (Playground Games) marked a milestone for computer videogames and the development of large-scale interactive algorithms.

Historical parallelism is proven by the New Media Reader by confronting key texts by modern artists and computer scientists articulating similar ideas about technological development. Two readings in particular can give us a sense of what was seen as the coming “new medium” in the decade following the end of the two world wars. The story of Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1941) and the article by American engineer and science administrator Vannevar Bush (1945) both develop the idea of a “massive branching structure as a better way to represent human experience”⁴

In Bush’ imagined Garden of Forking Paths this complex structure resembles a labyrinth that “folds back upon itself in infinite regression”⁵. For Bush, instead, the world is more like a challenging maze than an unsolvable labyrinth. Here the scientist’s responsibility is to lay down new trails to solve the enigma. However, the linear medium at the time of Bush and Borges had failed to capture the intricacy of human thoughts. Scientists and intellectuals were, therefore, driven to investigate and fantasise about informative structures, making up for a lack of an adequate map of knowledge.

Representation of Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths

The theories of humanists and engineers also described creativity as the only tactic to solve the world’s problems. On one side the humanist strand, while still engaging in decrypting our cultural confusion, tended to dramatise such problems. On the other, engineers were “putting their faith in the invention of the proper instruments”⁶.

The stories and essays of both storytellers and humanists later became blueprints for actual systems that employed technology to reconfigure our cultures. And it is when these two traditions come together and collaborate that we see the rise of new “emergent forms of human expression.”⁷


1–4–5–6–7: Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (2003). The New Media Reader [Paperback, Online] Available at

2–3: Lev Manovich (2001). The Language of New Media [Online, Hardcover, paperback] Available at

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.