July 24, 2003

New Media: Theory and Practice

by Michael Mateas · , 1:43 pm

A week or so ago I had a nice chat with Jay Bolter about the function of New Media theory. Just to be clear, since “New Media” is a very squishy category, what we were talking about is computer-based work. Our discussion raised a number of questions that I would love to hear comments on.

1. What’s theory for?
For me, theory is for making. Theoretical frameworks are contingent constructions that inform the creation of artifacts. Jay sensibly points out that theory can be purely descriptive – a “purely descriptive” theory presumably doesn’t directly inform an artifact, though perhaps it provides a background against which design occurs. This got me thinking more generally about what role new media theory plays in the work of new media artists. When I think about my own work and that of my colleagues at Georgia Tech, my own work is informed much more by science and technology studies than by new media theory, Sha Xin Wei’s work is informed by performance studies, phenomenology and mathematical theory, and Diane Gromala’s work is informed by phenomenology and theories of subjectivity. So here are at least three new media artists who practices aren’t strongly informed by new media theory. When working on specific pieces, I often construct temporary, contingent theoretical structures to inform that particular piece, but the theoretical construction is in some sense part of the craft practice of making the piece. What do other artists and media theorists feel about the relationship between theory and making?

2. Code
For me, the process of programming and the program code are an essential part of the theoretical and conceptual content of a piece. Code is the plane where the material craft practice of computer-based work plays out (of course, new media work often includes multiple practices, such as sculpture, image making, animation and so forth – there are many interesting questions to explore about the relationship between code and other media). For Jay, in theoretical discourse about new media art, code can be essentially black-boxed – theory can operate purely in the domain of the audience experience. This is similar to our own Nick Montfort’s position regarding interactive fiction; he argues that, when describing the aesthetics of interactive fiction, the code level can be effectively bracketed off (at least, this was his argument in an earlier draft version of Twisty Little Passages). As an artist, I want to understand how to achieve specific effects, and so want to understand the connection between code and the phenomenology of the audience experience. What do other people think?

3. Theory essentialism
Jay is a media non-essentialist and theoretical pluralist – he immediately distrusts arguments that start with “The essence of new media is…”. While I normally don’t consider myself an essentialist, I suppose my position is mighty close to something like “the essence of new media is computation/procedurality.” I’m curious to hear what other essences of new media people hold, and how these essences play out in their work.