This morning I upgraded my mail client from Thunderbird 1.0 to Thunderbird 1.5. Mozilla released the new version a few weeks ago. The upgrade was seamless; my old settings and folders were transferred to the new version without any effort on my part.
The new version has better spam filters and security safeguards, but it still doesn’t have a save as text or export function. After using Eudora for years, I got used to being able to archive my e-mail simply by selecting a batch of messages and clicking save as text. That generated a nice, clean plain text file for my archive. Other programs allow you to export a block of messages as text. Not T-bird.
There is a workaround, however. If you go to
C:\Documents and Settings\UserName\Application Data\Thunderbird\Profiles\whatever.default\Mail\ you should be able to locate the file where Thunderbird saves the mail. Open that file with Notepad or Wordpad and save it out as text. Just make sure you strip out attachments and images first, or you’ll be looking at a lot of binary code translated to ASCII gobbledygook.
Thunderbird is an excellent program. It’s surprising that it lacks such a simple feature.
The Language of New Media, by Lev Manovich. Published by the MIT Press, 2001.
Why do I read books like this? Any book about computers and culture is bound to be out of date by the time is printed. So why invest the time it takes to plow through 333 pages, not including the index? I guess I was looking for a framework for understanding and perhaps a few fresh ideas. Professor Manovich provides ideas in abundance, however, the framework he selects is flawed.
The construct Manovich proposes is cinema, in particular Vertov’s seminal 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera. In his prologue, Manovich uses Vertov’s film to illustrate his key ideas. Foremost among these is, “cinematic ways of seeing the world, of structuring time, of narrating a story, of linking one experience to the next, have become the basic means by which computer users access and interact with all cultural data.”
In some respects taking cinema as a model for the development of new media is a valid heuristic technique. Film conventions have clearly influenced the world of gaming and VR. Yet the model breaks down before too long. Cinema is primarily for entertainment; it tells a story to the viewer. The internet is primarily a communication tool; it facilitates the exchange of information. PCs may have become more like media players, but they are still computing machines whose key functions are generating text, processing numbers and tracking transactions. Lastly the net is a far larger medium than cinema ever was; it embraces commerce, communication, learning, construction and entertainment with billions of active participants.
If the big picture eludes Manovich, he is much better at outlining the methods and characteristics of new media. His definition of new media is succinct and flexible. Manovich posits five characteristics that define new media:
1. It’s digital (has numerical representation)
2. It’s modular
3. It’s automated
4. It’s variable
5. It is transcoded (the computer layer shapes the culture layer).
In his chapter on Form, Manovich, a professor of visual arts at the University of California San Diego, notes how computer tropes have been picked up by the popular culture and how well-known computer forms have influenced real-life. Twenty years ago computer designers looked to real-life to give form to their tools. They chose items like a desktop and a filing cabinet to represent computer space and function. Nowadays aspects of computer function and the GUI influence popular culture (see for example MTV or Alex Garland’s The Beach).
The chapter on the Database also spins out some interesting ideas but misses the point. Manovich proposes an opposition between database and narrative, between the nonlinear and the linear. He gives as an example here the way film editing constructs a narrative out of a database of images and sounds. Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera is cited as a manifesto of the then new medium of cinema because it catalogs film techniques and constructivist angles in much the same way a lexicographer would catalog the grammar and syntax of language. No such manifesto has appeared for the computer age. Although, one must note that almost 35 years elapsed between the time the Lumiere brothers screened The Arrival of a Train at the Station and Vertov’s cinema manifesto.
One of the interesting ideas in this chapter is that the computer has become a “universal media machine”. As all previous cultural artifacts are becoming digitized, the net has become a vast database of media. Or as Manovich says, “the Web gave millions of people a new hobby — data indexing.” The author says that the age of new media is an era of recycling old media — sifting through millions of recorded images and sounds to cut and paste them together in new ways. Pastiche and quotation form the database of the new culture.
What this chapter on databases misses is the real utility of the database. Unstructured data piles like the net are confusing (although indexing tools like Google have gone a long way toward making sense of the pile). Structured databases impose a grid on information. That grid allows us to measure time, track sessions, compare, contrast and evaluate information. That capability, while not as easily understood as a filmic narrative, is more powerful than narrative alone. The relational database contains many possible narratives, all tagged with vital information like who, what, when, and where. The only thing the grid cannot tell us, perhaps, is why.
At several points in this long book Manovich calls for a new information aesthetics — a narrative to make sense of the ebb and flow of information. A single narrative may be a limited way of understanding the whole. In The Myth of Total Cinema, Andre Bazin said that the idea of cinema existed long before the technology made it possible. One could say that about the net as well. The idea of an internetworked world of knowledge has probably been around as long as the idea of flight. With the system in constant state of becoming, a simple story could not encompass its totality. The narrative must transcend itself — a larger resonance is needed. Maybe this is why metaphors are so powerful in bringing ideas to fruition. Stories like Gibson’s Neuromancer and Stephenson’s Snow Crash created metaphors that transcended their stories. They suggested a reality that would later come to pass.
In his introduction Manovich explains that this book is an attempt to write “a theory of the present” regarding the new media. Having worked in the field, he knows how quickly the medium is changing. Much of the material for the book first appeared as postings to Rhizome, the journal of digital arts. Most of The Language of New Media was written before 1999 — before XML, Google and the rise of the blogs — so some of the examples Manovich uses are bound to be a bit dated. But as far as presenting a theory of the present goes, Manovich has succeeded. As to what it all meant, that will be left to future scholars – with the grand perspective of time — to tell us.