“Never in history have we had so much data at our disposal about human culture and behavior,” says Lev Manovich, “but as far as most artists and academics from the humanities are concerned, this data is part of ‘capitalism,’ so it’s considered bad, because ‘capitalism is bad.’”
Manovich is one of the most important thinkers and researchers in the realms of the internet and digital culture today. His 2001 book “The Language of New Media” laid the theoretical foundations for what we now call digital studies and helped create the terms we use to think and talk about culture in the digital age, first and foremost the concept of “new media.” A professor of Computer Science at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Manovich says he sees himself not as an academic per se, but rather as “an artist whose medium is academic articles.” He also doesn’t really get why people are still reading a book he published so long ago, and says, “maybe the professors are just too lazy to read something else so they keep citing it and tell their students to read it too.”
Manovich is hard to pin down. A self-proclaimed “contrarian”, at 59, Manovich, has had an impressive run as both an academic and an artist, with a career that has in many senses shadowed the digital revolution he writes about prolifically. He began his career as a computer animator in the 1980s, but is today credited with being one of the founders of “software studies” (a field that extends critical theory to the examination of software and its impact on society), and his interests range from digital aesthetics to cultural analysis of machine learning, AI, and analog radar systems. He’s also a digital artist with a keen interest in cinema and was one of the first to teach and analyze digital filmmaking.
Manovich has written a number of popular and academic studies of what he terms contemporary visual culture, which he defines very widely. This has included studying Instagram, and more recently, setting up a “cultural analytics” lab that works with corporate giants like Google as well as such artistic institutions as the Museum of Modern Art to try to bring know-how from the world of computer science – for example, the use of big data – to the world of culture. For example, the lab analyzed almost 7.5 million Instagram photos that were shared in Manhattan and crossed-referenced them with demographics and economic data to try and gauge “social media inequality”. In another project, the lab created an interactive digital installation of the Broadway street in New York City, based on 30 million images and data points collected from Instagram, Twitter, Google Street View, and other sources. Manovich’s work at the MoMa is perhaps the most representative of his thought, and employs data-visualization to 20,000 photographs held in the museum's photography collection to try and use big data methods to yield cultural findings related to art history.
The underlying logic of his 30-year career can be seen as the attempt to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable worlds: that of art and high culture, on the one hand, and that of computers and digital culture. Though one may seem aesthetic and artistic, and the other pragmatic and analytic, for Manovich, the digital revolution has linked them together: Computers have become the mediator of all of our cultural consumption, and software has become our artistic tool kit.
In the past, each art form had its own medium for expressing itself – the photographer had his camera and the writer, his typewriter. Today, however, many forms of art and human creativity manifest almost exclusively through computer software. For Marshall McLuhan, the “medium was the message” because there were fundamental differences between television, books and radio. They are not neutral carriers of the content – each affects us in different ways. Today we live in a world in which films and television are consumed through Netflix, and music and podcasts through Spotify, both of which are accessed through a computer – be it a smartphone app or an internet browser. For Manovich that means there are no longer different media as much as there is the new medium of software.
“No human being writes anymore,” Friedrich Kittler, the philosopher of technology, wrote in 1982, observing that, “Today, human writing runs through inscriptions burnt into silicon.”
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Identity and politics
Manovich was born in 1960 in the Soviet Union, and raised in a Jewish household in Moscow: “My parents were a scientist and a poet and they were very secular,” he says. He moved to the United States in the 1981, studying filmmaking and cognitive science at New York University and later receiving a PhD in Visual Culture at the University of Rochester. Therefore, one might assume that like other emigres from the USSR – a younger member of that same cohort is Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, who was born in 1973 – Manovich is enamored of American culture. But that’s not actually true: With Manovich, nothing is black or white, and today he often spends time in Russia in addition to his full time job in New York to continue his “cultural analytics” projects.
“What I find terrifying is that intellectuals in America actually believe what they read in The New York Times,” he says, which is to say they treat it as the gospel truth. “ Russia has many problems. What is interesting about Russia is that for the Western mind, often it looks like irrational place. The U.S. is the opposite – people’ behaviors are extremely rational, it’s like the most rational place in the world. When I came to America, I felt I was surrounded by robots.”
Though he works alongside prominent critical thinkers on the far left of the political spectrum – people like Judith Butler who, like Manovich, also teaches at the prestigious European Graduate School, considered a bastion of radical theory – when I ask him about the Kremlin’s use of digital technology to spread disinformation, he acknowledges that this a problem – but says that we also have a bigger problem.
“Russia is a very complex country with lots of problems – there are many spaces there where people still feel helpless, for example, the court system. But there are also lots of good things. For example, technologically, Moscow is very progressive, it has the best WiFi, Uber works great and Russia is the third-biggest country in terms of Instagram users. So it’s basically a contemporary country, but it’s also an authoritarian country – so is China, by the way, but China is efficient and Russia is not.
“But if you look at The New York Times, they only write about Russia from a negative perspective. So, you want to know about the problem with fake news? It’s the news is itself that is the problem, because it’s a very biased view of the world."
To Manovich, journalism is a flawed medium that we shouldn’t fetishize. People assume "the news" is the truth and that fake news corrupted a perfect medium. He says, it’s not perfect, its flawed because of its business model, which incentivizes negative narratives.
"The percentage of negative news is on the rise," he asserts, "studies in the 1970s already found this. Why? Maybe because they need to sell advertisements, but news readers including intellectuals think we are living in a time of crisis, because most news are negative.
“Guys! What crisis? Between 1940 and 1945 there was a crisis – there was the Holocaust and the entire world was at war. Now there are only a few local conflicts – we live in humanity’s best period and every single indicator says so – but the media create this sense that that’s not true, and so people are depressed.”
But nonetheless, the rise of Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin’s growing global power create the sense that we are on the brink of a social or political crisis and that technology plays a key role in that.
“But that has nothing to do with technology! Technology only reflects and permits cultural and social desires.”
What do you mean? How does technology reflect social desires?
“In contemporary world, people want to feel safe; people want to neutralize uncertainty and increase predictability. And into this space, enters technology. Technology is very good at addressing human desires. For example: Authoritarian countries love technology because they love the idea of total control and total surveillance, and in China and Russia they’ve embraced the internet more than all other counties.
The problem with this, according to Manovich, is the expectations we have of technology: “Don’t ask too much of technology and don’t try to blame it for everything. In the 1990s, we lived in this optimistic decade, it was the after end of the Cold War, the beginning of globalization, etc., and people projected these feelings onto technology – and lots of left-wing thinkers, writers and journalists were writing about the internet as an instrument of freedom – so the internet was seen as a liberation project that works well with left-wing ideas. Twenty-five years later, we are now told that there is a massive social and political crisis, and people now project those feelings onto technology and blame it for that.”
So loss of privacy and surveillance are not really a problem?
“That is a misunderstanding and a problem of misplaced expectations: People really need to accept the fact that technology is not black or white, but part of our culture and our society. Every technology can be used in thousands of different ways. Just like you go out into the physical world and you see beauty and ugliness, life and death, love and hate. For me, it’s the same with technology and the internet and even Facebook.”
What is the biggest misunderstanding the general public has about the internet and technology?
“Technology is seen as a mechanism that will allow for safety and predictability. We put cameras everywhere and allow people to read our emails. But what I’m trying to say is that the problem is not surveillance, the problem is that people want surveillance. And in some cases, it works – crime is down in some places because of these cameras. So, it’s not all bad. For example, the Google Assistant does want to help me and make sure I reach my flight on time and it knows I have a flight because it reads my emails. It is in that sense that technology is very good at answering our desires, but the desire for stability and security through technology is the real problem: No one today treats the internet as something to experiment with or something that can liberate us. Therefore, people are using it to create this very safe and predictable world that is closed and very conventional – and it is very depressing.”
The problem that occupies Manovich, is the conservative way people look at technology, and the fact that people from the arts and humanities no longer think about computers in creative ways, and even incite against big data – leaving it in the hands of corporations.
“The 1990s and early 2000s was a very activist period – very idealistic, avant-garde, and people created things like Wikipedia. Today we have high-tech and big data, but nobody is creating the next Wikipedia – perhaps the best of online projects, which gave millions of people access to knowledge. So why is there no new Wikipedia today? Because society has changed and people realize you can make money from technology, not change the world, and that’s what they are doing. I love the world, but I feel sad… this is very reactionary,” the professor says, adding, “Think how great the ideas of the early internet thinkers were. People like Ted Nelson who thought about hypertext as a revolutionary force, or even someone like Vanevar Bush, who thought about organizing knowledge in a completely new way.”
Both Nelson and Bush wrote texts about technologies that were never realized but that influenced generations of engineers and entrepreneurs. For example, in a seminal text published in The Atlantic in 1945, Bush, who headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), suggested creating a desktop system for storing and retrieving the wealth of information created by science. His so-called Memex system (a portmanteau of memory index) is considered a precursor to the desktop computer. Nelson, for his part, coined the term “hypertext,” as well as the idea of “copy/paste,” and envisaged a system called Xanadu, with interlinked pages, which foreshadowed the world wide web.
But at the end of the day, the digital revolution didn’t actually create a revolution in knowledge like Bush and certainly like Nelson wanted. For example, Wikipedia is written by a relatively small group of predominantly male editors and it seems to me to have recreated many of the biases of the past despite promising to do the exact opposite.
“What are you talking about! For millions of people, Wikipedia allowed access to knowledge for the first time. Listen, there were always utopian ideas; that is not new and that is not unique to our age and certainly not digital culture. All the problems with Wikipedia, for example, are problems that are related to humanity and have always been there. If I write some part of some article on Wikipedia and now I feel ownership over my contribution – that is a human issue, not a technological [one]. But the internet did something amazing and we in the West either forgot [that] or don’t want to talk about that anymore.
“China is a good counter example [of a digital revolution]: They built a big firewall, but at the same time, they also developed their own IT industry. They are the only country to do that [built their own IT industry], and it works for them, and the educated middle class there likes the social credit system, for example [which is intended to give public scores on both financial credit and behavior for both individuals and businesses]. From a Western point of view that is very terrifying, but they are clearly saying, we want order and we have to give up some privacy and freedom for that order and at some level they are okay with that.”
Life in a photoshopped society
I meet Manovich, a towering and emotive man, at a stylish hotel in central Tel Aviv. He’s in town – it’s his first time in Israel – for the PrintScreen festival, and arrived courtesy of the American Embassy in Israel. Which leads me to ask him if he feels Jewish, and if he had ever wanted to visit here before.
“I’m a Jew, so obviously I wanted to come to Israel,” he says. “I even have some family here, so it’s almost strange that I haven’t been here yet. But I’ll also admit I’m one of those Jews who’s afraid of other Jews, you know? Like if there’s too many of us in one place, someone may try to kill us. But it’s a strange thing, this idea of Jewish continuity.”
Did you feel like you grew up with a Jewish identity?
“There is no word I hate more than ‘identity.’ Personally, yes, I’m a proud Jew. My mother raised me to be proud of being Jewish and was proud that our family was living in Moscow from the 19th century, which is rare for Jews. On the other hand, I have never done those genetic tests, and they may be a lie. I don’t know what I think about them and if there really is such a thing as a ‘Jewish gene.’”
Obviously, there is no such thing! Do you not see a connection between genetic testing and identity politics? As if DNA can supply a scientific basis for identity?
“Please be careful not to project your own ideas on to me when you write up this interview. I am not one of those intellectuals like [Slavoj] Zizek, who can talk about anything. I don’t like talking about things that I haven’t thought about. But forget that. I’m here because I want to fall in love with Tel Aviv and my condition for this interview is that you give me a good recommendation for a place to go out tonight. But I don’t want to go to some bar with only teenagers where I’ll feel old.”
You should go to the Teder [entertainment compound]; it’s classic Tel Aviv and there’s tons of places there, but you may feel old. I’m 32 and I also feel a bit old there sometime. But Tel Aviv is amazing.
“It feels like you guys are still in the 1990s – technology and high-tech are still working for you.”
Really? When did digital culture become a cultural force? In the ‘90s?
“The big change came in 2005-2006 – with social media. If in the ‘80s we had maybe 40 people in the entire world doing animation with computers, then today Adobe has 20 million users and there are about one billion photographers on Instagram.”
In his 2013 book “Software Takes Command,” Manovich offers a historical and cultural analysis of software as a creative tool. “I look at Photoshop filters like an art historian looks at the Mona Lisa,” he says proudly today. Indeed, his book gives a detailed analysis of how Photoshop’s tools, for example, impacts digital photography – ideas that today he’s using to analyze Instagram.
Do you feel digital culture is by definition a visual culture?
“Yes, very much. Today you buy a phone and you are forced to become a photographer. That has both cultural and aesthetic significance. Because now suddenly everyone’s a photographer and there is an aesthetic that is a direct result of the technological forces behind these new media.”
An example of those technological forces can be found in his book, where Manovich recounts how while visiting Seoul in 2006 he was taken to a design studio that was taking photos of Samsung phones for all company commercials and photoshopping all of them.
Do you think this small studio in effect created the aesthetic language for an entire generation of photographers who use Samsung phone as a camera?
“When I went to Seoul I noticed that certain types of plastic surgery are common there. I understood that this is a society that has been photoshopped – an airbrushed society – and therefore it makes sense they would create this aesthetic because they have this aesthetic of perfection.”
Over the past few months, a number of South Korean K-pop stars have committed suicide, most recently Goo Hara, in her case after it was revealed that she had undergone plastic surgery. Is this the price of this aesthetic of perfection?
“Maybe, but airbrushing is not new. Photography has always been airbrushed, technology only increases its precision and scale. For example, you look at the photos in old newspapers and they are so airbrushed that for us it looks almost like painting. Photoshop did not invent airbrushing; it only expanded its scale and increased its precision. The Photoshop revolution preserved this aesthetic practice but also made it more wide scale and more accurate.”
“The same thing happened with Instagram and camera phones. Photoshop was used only by professional photographers – they immediately understood what I was writing about [in the late 1990s] because they felt the change Photoshop created in their field. In 2010, Instagram founders wanted their new app to be used by everybody, not only professional photographers. But what actually happened? Five, six years into Instagram, so many photos there look super photoshopped – everything is airbrushed using the Instagram app, other apps or Photoshop. Photoshop’s influence on Instagram is so clear, and today the goal of many Instagram authors is to post photos that they look super professional and perfect – even though Instagram was set up as an attempt to democratize Photoshop and Flickr, which were scary and intended only for professional photographers.”
Do you think Instagram actually democratized photography?
“I don’t know. If anything, it democratized beauty. But at the aesthetic level, this is a very dangerous thing, people get used to perfection and perfect images. Every picture you see online – not to mention in print – has been airbrushed and carefully edited. In the past 20 years, the desire for an aesthetics of perfection has also being subjected to a logic of mass production. Today this aesthetic is preserved and enhanced not just through human behavior but also through algorithms and machine learning. When you swipe, you are sorting for the best picture and the algorithm only wants to [reinforce this by showing] you what you will click on, and that creates this situation.”
In your most recent works, you have turned your focus to Instagram, attempting to treat it as an arena that is both artistic and big data. You asked: How can I look at a billion photographs at the same time and try to reach some aesthetic or cultural understanding. Do you think the age of human aesthetics is over and now we only have big data aesthetics?
“That is not what I think at all and really don’t want you to project your own ideas about this ‘post-subject’ aesthetic onto me. I will give you an answer that will surprise you, because we are both smart Jews: My next text is not about the attempt to look at a million photographs but rather only at one. I want to write about one single Instagram photo and dedicate 60 pages to it.”
“Because I want to write about things that move us, and I think that today content matters more than ever. Computers cannot see what makes a photograph beautiful and that’s what interests me. Today people seem to think that there are too many photos, too many posts, and that content doesn’t matter. I think the opposite. Now content matters more than ever before. The single frame, the single post or a single book – the perfection of each of these is more important because the competition is so big. People are looking for a point of orientation to grab onto and a book is just such an orienting point.
“If I write a book that is good, and people read it then that means that it has succeeded despite there being so many blog posts and articles out there. Look at Yuval Noah Harari – I don’t know if what he writes is actually good scientifically, but people are interested in what he has to say, he tells good stories. People read him all over the world.”
And what about digital culture and data? Why aren’t people more interested in that?
“Maybe if I’d write about money, like [Thomas] Pikkety, and not about culture, people would be more interested, and I’d be more known. But forget about that, it’s not just software and digital culture – it’s data. I’ll give you an example. I gave a lecture to PhD students in art history at Columbia University in New York; these are the people who are going to go on to become curators at the MoMa and so on. And I tell them about my research into Instagram and they listen politely but at the end of my talk, they ask me: Why are you wasting your time on Instagram? Instagram is a big company, it’s not art. So I say: well, I’m interested in contemporary visual culture and that’s where it’s happening.
“Do you understand? There are a billion people using Instagram, but for those students, it’s capitalism and corporations, so it’s bad and all these people using Instagram are just living in false consciousness. That the only perspective for examining Instagram is not as art or culture, but as an ideology. For them Instagram is just an instrument of ideology, but I hate that bullshit.”
Come on, not all of academia is that Marxist. There are social studies that do focus on digital culture.
“Of course, but you need to understand that today there are two types or schools of social sciences: the one done at universities, and the one done by corporations. They both miss something, in some sense. Humanities and social sciences only focus on diversity, inclusion and identity – trying to challenge the Western canon – which is very important and actually great, but it’s a really bad way to research Instagram and think about software culture. Why? Because it treats these things as capitalistic. And therefore, in some strange way, I find myself on the side of the corporations, because they do analysis of human behavior. They look at what masses are doing. But there is a big difference between what Google and Amazon do and what academia does: First of all, in industry they don’t publish their results, but more importantly, they have 5,000 data points about every person online but they only ask one question: Will they buy something? They look at this data for purely commercial reasons. So, I’m stuck in this weird position and feel a certain discomfort.”
Do you think the digital revolution skipped over the humanities and social sciences?
“When did Western society really start thinking critically about itself? Yes, there’s Descartes, but during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, we have this golden age of thought. From Marx to Weber and Freud and Durkheim. However, all this brilliant theorizing often was not based on any data. Toward the 1990s, you starting to have this feeling that everything that can be thought of [without collecting and analyzing data] has already been thought of. There is this intellectual exhaustion, almost, in academia and in what I call high culture. No one creates grand new theories of social structures anymore, no one even thinks about the structure of text anymore. There are no big ontological or social theories anymore – except with some giants like [philosopher of science] Bruno Latour, but even he limits himself to talking only about science.
“That is the paradox of our time: We can have all the information in the world about everyone with an internet connection, and in the future we will even be able to see what people are reading and even view their brain in real time – so you can look at society at a fine scale and at a resolution that in the past were impossible, but it hasn’t led to any new big theory so far. We have all this big data, but we don’t really know what to do with it, In fact, we think about it using 19th-century methods. For example, today we have huge data tables with billions of rows - but tables and spreadsheets have existed for century and are [an example of] classic capitalist cognition. How can we use big data without aggregating in into small summary statistics or categories? This to me is the challenge of our time. Maybe if we figure out how to really use big data in new ways this will also lead to genuinely new ideas in social sciences and humanities.
You also have a revolutionary project it seems. Do you also want to change the world?
“Maybe you are right. My goal is to get people to think about technology differently, to think about digital culture in a less rigid way, and to to think less in stereotypes. I want to make them see the world in a more complex way because that’s the way I see the world. In this sense, I do have a left-wing project – but it’s not connected to changing the world, but rather to a desire to make people more open. In that sense, I’m actually more of a contrarian.”