[N]ew media does not fit into the traditional history of cultural evolution as it does not use new forms. In contrast, the avant-garde of the 1920s invented a whole set of new formal languages which we are still using today. Given the transformation of avant-garde techniques into software, described above, are we to conclude that the only claim of new media to avant-garde status lies in its connection to the old, modernist avant-garde?
The answer is “No”. New media does introduce an equally revolutionary set of communication techniques. It indeed represents the new avant-garde, and its innovations are at least as radical as the formal innovations of the 1920s. But if we are to look for these innovations in the realm of forms, the traditional area of cultural evolution, we will not find them there. For the new avant-garde is radically different from the old:
1. The old media avant-garde of the 1920s came up with new forms, new ways to represent reality and new ways to see the world. The new media avant-garde is about new ways of accessing and manipulating information. Its techniques are hypermedia, databases, search engines, data mining, image processing, visualization, simulation.
2. The new avant-garde is no longer concerned with seeing or representing the world in new ways but rather with accessing and using previously accumulated media in new ways. In this respect new media is post-media or meta-media, as it uses old media as its primary material.
Our practical and intellectual nature is deeply interested in truth. What describes fact appeals to us for that reason; it has an inalienable interest. However unpleasant truth may prove, we long to know it, partly perhaps because experience has shown us the prudence of this kind of intellectual courage, and chiefly because the consciousness of ignorance and the dread of the unknown is more tormenting than any possible discovery. A primitive instinct makes us turn the eyes full on any object that appears in the dim borderland of our field of vision - and this all the more quickly, the more terrible that object threatens to be.
This physical thirst for seeing has its intellectual extension. We covet truth, and to attain it, amid all accidents, is a supreme satisfaction. Now this satisfaction the representation of evil can afford. Whether we hear the account of some personal accident, or listen to the symbolic representation of the inherent tragedy of life, we crave the same knowledge; the desire for truth makes us welcome eagerly whatever comes in its name. To be sure, the relief of such instruction does not of itself constitute an aesthetic pleasure: the other conditions of beauty remain to be fulfilled. But the satisfaction of so imperious an intellectual instinct insures our willing attention to the tragic object, and strengthens the hold which any beauties it may possess will take upon us. An intellectual value stands ready to be transmuted into an aesthetic one, if once its discursiveness is lost, and it is left hanging about the object as a vague sense of dignity and meaning.
To this must be added the specific pleasure of recognition, one of the keenest we have, and the sentimental one of nursing our own griefs and dignifying them by assimilation to a less inglorious representation of them. Here we have truth on a small scale; conformity in the fiction to incidents of our personal experience. Such correspondences are the basis of much popular appreciation of trivial and undigested works that appeal to some momentary phase of life or feeling, and disappear with it. They have the value of personal stimulants only; they never achieve beauty. Like the souvenirs of last season’s gayeties, or the diary of an early love, they are often hideous in themselves in proportion as they are redolent with personal associations. But however hopelessly mere history or confession may fail to constitute a work of art, a work of art that has an historical warrant, either literal or symbolical, gains the support of that vivid interest we have in facts. And many tragedies and farces, that to a mind without experience of this sublunary world might seem monstrous and disgusting fictions, may come to be forgiven and even perhaps preferred over all else, when they are found to be a sketch from life.
Truth is thus the excuse which ugliness has for being. Many people, in whom the pursuit of knowledge and the indulgence in sentiment have left no room for the cultivation of the aesthetic sense, look in art rather for this expression of fact or of passion than for the revelation of beauty. They accordingly produce and admire works without intrinsic value. They employ the procedure of the fine arts without an eye to what can give pleasure in the effect. They invoke rather the a priori interest which men are expected to have in the subject-matter, or in the theories and moral implied in the presentation of it. Instead of using the allurements of art to inspire wisdom, they require an appreciation of of wisdom to make us endure their lack of art.
Of course, the instruments of the arts are public property and any one is free to turn them to new uses. It would be an interesting development of civilization if they should now be employed only as methods of recording scientific ideas and personal confessions. But the experiment has not succeeded and can hardly succeed. There are other simpler, clearer, and more satisfying ways of expounding truth. A man who is really a student of history or philosophy will never rest with the vague and partial oracles of poetry, not to speak of the inarticulate suggestions of the plastic arts. He will at once make for the principles which art cannot express, even if it can embody them, and when those principles are attained, the works of art, if they had no other value than that of suggesting them, will lapse from his mind. Forms will give place to formulas as hieroglyphics have given place to the letters of the alphabet.
If, on the other hand, the primary interest is really in beauty, and only the confusion of a moral revolution has obscured for a while the vision of the ideal, then as the mind regains its mastery over the world, and digests its new experience, the imagination will again be liberated, and create its forms by its inward affinities, leaving all the weary burden, archaeological, psychological, and ethical, to those whose business is not to delight. But the sudden inundation of science and sentiment which has made the mind of the nineteenth century so confused, by overloading us with materials and breaking up our habits of apperception and our ideals, has led to an exclusive sense of the value of expressiveness, until this has been almost identified with beauty. This exaggeration can best prove how the expression of truth may enter into the play of aesthetic forces, and give a value to representations which, but for it, would be repulsive.
I think that by carefully studying the histories of current day technologies, we can uncover insights into the constellation of human and technical arrangements that can help to projectively crystallize an understanding of the real nature of our current condition. This is based on my prejudice that cultures have long-standing currents of agenda — over hundreds of years and often unspoken — and that technologies, like the rest of material culture, are a reification of these agendas. They are neither discoveries nor neutral. They come out of the dreams of people and offer indications of social relations.