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Computational Media – What’s That?

Oct 28, 2014 By Richard Smith

Our colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz released a report, Envisioning the Future of Computational Media, last March. That report was the result of a 2012 workshop, called Media Systems. That workshop and the report culminated in the creation of a new department at UCSC, called “Computational Media.” What, you may ask, is computational media? And how does it connect with digital media?



Is computational new media?

At one level computational media and digital media are one and the same. You could just say it is a fancy new name for something that has been going on for a long time, either as ‘new media’ or ‘digital media’ or ‘interactive media.’ On the other hand, it is also an attempt to grapple with the obvious problems with both ‘digital media’ and ‘new media’ as descriptions for what we do.

In the case of digital media, in what corner of the world is there media that is NOT digital? Almost everything you find in the media is at the very least created using digital tools, even if the end product (e.g., a magazine) isn’t digital. And many traditional media (such as radio and television) have digital versions that are rapidly overtaking the analog versions even at the consumption stage (there is no more “over the air” analog television in Canada, for example, only digital television broadcasts).

The problem with ‘new media’ is even worse. What is new about new media? How does “newness” even help us define media or shape research, production, or the profession? Noah Waldrip-Fruin, who co-authored the UCSC report and will work in the new department, was the editor of a foundational text about new media, The New Media Reader from MIT Press. With this new department, even he has signalled, I think, the demise of “new media” as a helpful distinguishing term. And the other key author in the area, Paul Levinson, was reduced to titling his book The New New Media, as if repetition could resurrect the term.

Computational media enables new work, knowledge and outcomes

Computational media, according to the report’s authors Noah Waldrip-Fruin and Michael Mateas, helps us better understand the new media/digital landscape by focusing our attention on the types of work and the types of knowledge and skills that are required, and the kinds of outcomes of that work and knowledge. In terms of work and skills, they identify four key types: Technical, Creative, Interpretive, and Collaborative. In terms of outcomes, they list Artifacts, Capabilities, Insights, and Educated Practitioners.

If we consider our own school through these lenses, how do we stack up in terms of computational media? Interestingly, I think we are very well positioned, and that both the founding curriculum as well as the evolution we have undergone over the last seven years, as a professional program tightly coupled with both industry and academic research, has placed our work solidly in the realm described by Waldrip-Fruin and Mateas. For example, our curriculum strongly encourages as well as builds the four types of skills that enable the four types of work: technical, creative, interpretive and collaborative. We are also very strong in creating the kinds of people who have the capabilities and insights to become educated practitioners. And we are getting stronger - and putting more emphasis on - digital (“computational”) media artifacts. I will blog more about artifacts and physical media next week.

A useful new perspective for media creators

Does this mean we should change our name to The Centre for Computational Media? Not really. But computational media is a useful term - especially for those in computer science who wonder how they are to be relevant to the media-saturated world of the 21st century - as it shines a light on how we can use computers and computer applications to communicate, collaborate, and create.