representations, realities, and values

On pages 15-16, Manovich makes several interesting observations

+ Cultural representations are inevitably biased
+ Cultural objects both represent and construct.
+ Representations construct new referents

He gives an example of hierarchical and non-hierarchical file systems to illustrate his point that software interfaces at as representations. Clay Sherky elaborates on Manovich’s example of hierarchical and non-hierarchical files systems in a interesting piece titled “Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags.” He contrasts two classification paradigms; (i) a hierarchical browse paradigm, and (ii) a non-hierarchical (or flat hierarchy) search paradigm. Sherky traces the origins of the browse paradigm back to books and libraries with physical constraints such as lack of storage and having only one copy of each book, and cognitive constraints such as the ability to manage more than a couple hundred titles. However, with a new media, “there is no bookshelf.” We’ve realized this (or at least, Sherky’s realized this) as we’ve started using tags and links (e.g. Flickr, Delicious) to classify things. With this new paradigm, comes a new implicit view of reality; while a browse paradigm says “the world makes sense”, and everything has a distinct and logical place, a search paradigm says “we make sense of the world.”

We create representations based on representations based on representations, and so on. These representations tend to inherit constraints about what is possible; they tend to construct new realities. As Manovich put’s it, they “represent, as well as help construct, some outside referent.”

I also see this example as showing how we can be become too far abstracted from realities that we care about; that we can overlook opportunities to achieve our higher level goals and values. When we use new media in old ways, we are subscribing to a view of reality that may no longer be necessary or desirable. We don’t necessarily want to make better bookshelves. What we really want is to be able to be able to find just what we want, when we want it, and then be able to forget about it and not worry about putting it away when we’re done.

Manovich’s agenda is mostly to describe and explain new media… but it’s interesting to think about we can alter some of the trends he describes. Can we “speed up” the use of new media? Should we try explicitly recognize and challenge the assumptions implicit in our cultural objects?

Something Manovich and Sherky don’t touch on that might be interesting to explore is the relationship between cultural representations and values. For example, what if we extend the notion of object to include people in the following quote from Manovich:

“A hierarchical file system assumes that the world can be reduced to a logical and hierarchical order, where every object has a distinct and well-defined place. The World Wide Web model assumes that every object has the same importance as any other, and that everything is, or can be, connected to everything else.”

Or back to Sherky’s comment about how a browse paradigm says “the world makes sense” while a search paradigm says “we make sense of the world.”

Does the browse paradigm also say, “I value objectivity, order, and understanding” while the search paradigm says “I value subjectivity, diversity, and creation”?

Do cultural representations tell us not only what we can do, but what we should do? How will new media alter our values? Can we use it to better support our values?

1 Comment

  1. jeffreybardzell

    Great thoughts. I especially appreciated your line, “We create representations based on representations based on representations, and so on.” That is quite similar to the notion of simulacra that Baudrillard and Deleuze (two especially difficult characters we’ll read about more later) develop, so don’t forget this! Also, love your question about whether we can apply the Manovich quote to people. So, how WOULD you apply that to people? You seem to have posed a great question and then changed the subject!


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