On digital reproduction, the ‘original’, and mass amateurizaton

“On digital reproduction, the ‘original’, and mass amateurizaton”

Although Douglas Davis raises many important issues in “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction”, he misses the essential transformations of the digital revolution.

The fact of digital reproduction raises two critical questions, which Davis recognizes: If digital works can be reproduced flawlessly, is the value of the original destroyed? Is there even meaning to an “original” digital work?

In answering the first question, Davis fails to realize that the nature of “value” answers the question as soon as it’s asked. Value is not intrinsic. Jackson Pollock’s splatterings sell for millions while the doodlings of preschoolers merely get preferential placement on the refrigerator because of subjective value judgements, not because of a recognition of intrinsic worth. The “worth” of a work of art (aside from its value as an investment) is entirely in the pleasure it brings its owner. An original, if it exists, is qualitatively different from its successive copies, if only in the minds of other people. If a painting is made and a computer scans all the movements of the painter as he paints, a sufficiently dextrous robot could reproduce the painting to such a level of detail as to be indistinguishable from the original. But there will quite likely be *someone* who places value on the fact that his painting was the first, the one painted by the painter himself, and will therefore be willing to purchase the original at a higher price than the robot-made copies. The vast majority of consumer won’t care in the slightest and will happily hang the copies in their homes. Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The more interesting question, which Davis raises but fails to answer to any interesting degree concerns the nature of an “original” digital work and whether there actually is such a thing. Because digital works are by their nature perfectly reproducible, there is no “original” work in the same way as there are original physical works. A more relevant dichotomy for digital works than original vs. reproduction is legitimate vs. illegitimate. Because of the ease of digital reproduction, intellectual property is more important than ever, and the closest analogy to possessing an original work of art is possessing a legitimate copy of a digital work of art, such as a song. In this way, the more relevant distinction for digital works of art is the method of acquisition (legal/licensed vs. illegal/pirated) than the method of production (original/reproduction).

The importance of this distinction is readily apparent as the current legal mess created by tools like BitTorrent and sites like The Pirate Bay that facilitate the illegal copying of digital works, including digital works of art such as music and movies. In a similar way that collectors place extra value on a work’s originality, many digital media consumers place extra value on a work’s legitimacy, opting to pay (usually nominal) fees for legitimately licensed versions of digital works.

For most work that are purely digital, there is no meaningful “original”; the value that original physical works have has been transformed into the value of legitimacy in digital works.

Kenneth Hurst

36 Responses to “On digital reproduction, the ‘original’, and mass amateurizaton”

  1. Gautam says:

    Hey Kenneth I think you make a great point, but I also believe Davis tries to articulate an argument about originality and value in his conclusion:

    “aura resides…not in
    the thing itself but in the originality of
    the moment when we see, hear, read,
    repeat, revise.”

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