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WTF is New Media?

As computer technology becomes increasingly accessible, how do we define “New Media”?


Illustration by Sacha Lusk.

I’m always caught off-guard when introducing myself to someone new. We exchange pleasantries, and they take me on a marvelous journey through their immaculately curated, highly professional lifestyle. Then, there’s an awkward pause as we each take a drink, and the focus shifts. The first three questions they ask me come one after the other, the same every time, almost as if they were foreordained. The first two are simple, served up for me on a tee ball stand. 

“So, what do you do?” and “What are you studying?”

The third is a curveball:

“What is New Media?”

Anyone who has been asked this question in earnest will struggle to answer. A particularly popular response is to generalize the category with a vague answer along the lines of oh, you know, like computer art.” Skipping this to talk about one’s specific medium of choice is another: “I’m a net artist,” or, “my work is mostly internet based.” The only way to piece together a definition then is through the technologies included, and excluded, in what is already considered “New Media” art. New Media is inherently a contradictory and evasive label. The components of what is new are always changing, never static.

Computers in the form of machines capable of mathematical calculations have existed since antiquity. The modern incarnation of electronic computers originated around the beginning of the twentieth century. The World Wide Web is twenty-six years old as of 2017, with the infrastructures of the internet predating that by at least another twenty-six. Simply put, the technologies described by New Media simply are not new anymore. If the “new” in New Media means “new on the scale of fine arts,” then New Media acts as just another term to insulate art from any other consideration or outside critique. Either way, New Media is deliberately made into a hazy target. You can’t offer criticism of something that is never clearly in focus.

The “new” in “New Media” is constructed through atemporal means, compressing any semblance of chronology into the realm of the abstract. New never ends here. There is never a definition given for when this new begins or when it will end, because the ability to imbue a formal sense of “newness” in things serves to generate a false complexity. Anachronistic subject matters and means of presentation never seem to dull this label, instead being reanimated again and again as if made contemporary when presented through technological forms. “The medium is the message,” without much room for anything else.

The politics of New Media rely on the promise that such technologies can enable an unrestrained space with unlimited possibilities for its users. Only those with capital can produce, reproduce, or distribute content in the form of old, physical media under our current conditions. Older media is then recognized for its failed potential in this area, while “New Media” promises to displace the need for physical materials, and thus nullifying any requirements of capital for content. It’s an alluring vision of a meritocratic future, where content rises to the top based on its merit, and nothing else. However, “New Media” leans far too much on its prefix to separate itself from the systems it claims to escape.

The consumption and production of “New Media” is only accessible through specific devices and platforms, which are unavailable on an equal basis. For example, my privileged level of access to “new” technologies is far different when compared to others who find themselves barred entry through socioeconomic factors and the intersections of identity tied to them. “New” and “old” are individualized labels, defined by one’s access to media, and the resources required to get to it. Beyond one’s personal definitions however, such labels are applied very differently.

What is new here, and who defines it?

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