The New Media Reader is designed as a foundation for understanding new media. We have selected its contents with three audiences in mind:
The ideas now current in new media are a few of the many put forward during the founding of this field. The selections here reveal where today's important ideas came from and provide a basis for understanding them more deeply. The New Media Reader also presents ideas that still await their moment in the sun—ideas from the same visionaries who brought us the mouse, the link, object-oriented programming, and more. Considering how these ideas play out in today's new media environment could be the source of the next big innovation.
These selections provide the basis for a wide variety of new media courses, especially for courses that merge theory and application, aesthetics and implementation. They could serve as the sole texts for a course on the history of new media. In other courses, The New Media Reader can undergird a syllabus that also contains a selection of current writings, programs, and imagery in the course's area of focus. The materials offered here also represent a wealth of inspiration for final projects and independent studies, and provide a reference for scholars, offering historical works that are hard to access in other ways.
Whoever may try to understand the computer as new media in our changing world—whether a journalist, a manager, a dentist, or a delivery driver—will find in The New Media Reader an introduction to each selection, placing it in context and explaining its importance. These introductions do not assume a reader with a degree in computer science or mathematics—or in literature or philosophy, for that matter.
The New Media Reader contains three types of material:
The texts in the book part of The New Media Reader come from computer scientists, architects, artists, writers, cultural critics—and quite a few people whose defining insights came precisely from working across these categories. These essays range from World War II to the emergence of the World Wide Web. They begin just as digital computing, cybernetic feedback, and the early ideas that led to hypertext and the Internet are emerging into public discussion—and they end as the combined product of these ideas enters into the mainstream of public life. These writings are the most influential encapsulations of new media's most significant concepts and critiques.
On the CD part of The New Media Reader are working versions of some of the most important new media artifacts ever created, many of which are extremely difficult to find elsewhere or difficult to get running on modern computers. Included are games, tools, digital art, and more—with selections of academic software, independent literary efforts, and home-computer-era commercial software such as Karateka, a famous cinematically-inspired computer game from the creator of Prince of Persia and The Last Express.
Also on the CD are pieces of digitized video, documenting some new media programs of which no operational version exists and documenting important demonstrations of programs. For example, there is a video record of Douglas Engelbart's 1968 demonstration, one that fundamentally altered the course of new media. This was the first presentation of the mouse, the word processor, the hyperlink, computer-supported cooperative work, video conferencing, and even a dividing up of the screen that we'd now call non-overlapping "windows." Along more artistic lines, there is also video documentation of interactive artworks by Lynn Hershman and Grahame Weinbren—works that redefined what, and how, new media could mean.
Reading The New Media Reader in the usual way should of course be informative and helpful. Below are two particular suggestions of other ways to apply the concepts and critiques herein.
Understanding new media is almost impossible for those who aren't actively involved in the experience of new media; for deep understanding, actually creating new media projects is essential to grasping their workings and poetics. The ideas described in these selections can open important new creative areas for beginners and professionals alike. The book and CD can also help readers avoid an all-too-common problem in the new media field: the reinvention of the wheel. Instead of rebuilding the same systems with new technologies, those who look to The New Media Reader can base their new attempts on the lessons learned from existing work.
New media's biggest breakthroughs haven't come by simply expending huge resources to tackle well-understood problems. They have come from moments of realization: that a problem others haven't solved is being formulated in the wrong way, or that a technology has a radically different possible use than its current one, or that the metaphors and structures of one community of practice could combine with the products of another to create a third. That is, breakthroughs have come from thinking across disciplines, from rethinking one area of inquiry with tools and methodologies gained from another—whether in the direction of Theodor H. Nelson's conception of computing in literary terms, or the opposite movement of Raymond Queneau's formulation of storytelling and poetry in algorithmic terms. One of these brought us the Web; the other, digital narrative. There are almost certainly still fundamental contributions like this to be made in new media. Reading The New Media Reader's selections against one another can offer a way to begin this type of rethinking.
The New Media Reader speaks to articulate the history of a field that has too often gone unheard, both by entrepreneurs seeking to bring the next big thing to the Web and by academics approaching new media from their own discipline. Why the past has been neglected is no mystery: the genealogy of new media is much more obscure than its ecstatic, fully-indexed, online present. What historical documents are available are often found in fragments—on the Web in PDF, in an assortment of anthologies divided by subfields, or in the dusty microfilm files that Vannevar Bush hoped would one day be hooked into the memex. Often when early articles in new media are reprinted they do not include the important illustrations that accompanied the original publications. This anthology, embracing print and digital media, is our effort to uncover and assemble a representative collection of critical thoughts, events, and developments from the computer's humanistic and artistic past, its conception not as an advanced calculator but as a new medium, or as enabling new media. Many of these original insights, even many of the most radical, grew out of an understanding of media that came before as well as a background in what already existed of the new media field. We hope the materials here will help provide such an understanding and offer fuel for inspiration.
[See also designer Michael Crumpton's explanation (in PDF) of the special symbols and unique nagivation system used in The New Media Reader. Or, back to the main New Media Reader CD page.]