by Julius WiedemannMar 23, 2021
One of the characteristics of the digital world is that there is no original, as for instance in a piece of art. A piece of video art in digital form, or a projection on a wall can be replicated with exactly the same quality. Sometimes with better ones, depending on the equipment. This issue, which has intrigued philosophers and art critics for some time now, is a puzzle that can’t be easily solved. I have entered the real of “what we consider to be an original” or “what is the function of an original”, and so on. Whereas in the analogue world seeks to relate itself unequivocally to find the source for anything, like a manuscript, or a prototype, or even a painting, in the digital world we have a source which can be multiplied with no loss of quality or ability to differentiate from the source.
The consequence of that is that we have adopted a set of tools that we use now and have given names such as proxy, or alias. But even further from art, we are creating duplicates of ourselves, and the things around us. Our real world is full of these virtual attempts. We create avatars to text messages to friends, we use emojis, we create icons to get recognised on the first page of Netflix, we interact as customers with automated systems, just to mention a few.
Customer relationship management strategies now roam around the efficiency of sorting out problems by connecting people, but also creating efficiency by not requiring interpersonal contacts. Connections with products and services around the world are generated by allowing instant dialogue without requiring a learning curve, something that previously would require either a personal contact or an analogue approach. As for the first one it is being enhanced little by little, with the help of machine learning in AI to generate responses without the need of any human contact. We are now creating iconographies in the design world to allow us to start using anything, at any time, in any context without having to resort to an instructions manual. Not only every device, but also every home, every toy, should be dealt with without the need of a single sheet of paper. If one is eventually required, it can be found online anyway. But we have now declared the end of the manual. This is important, and related to originals. We no longer keep the instructions. We rarely read them.
With all things going digital, there is maybe another interesting point to make about original objects, and how we start relating to them. If a website for example is selling arts and crafts pieces which are unique, how should we relate to its physicality. Is the aspect of not touching the object, and the very impossibility to touch, diminishing the value of the product in question? When the virtual and the real cannot be distinguished our perception of the world becomes fuzzy. We are trained to separate dreams and desires from reality. But humans too cannot separate what is an intended wish and a desire. The inability to assess the physicality of something with an accurate simulation of what this thing represents, in the real world, constitutes the dilemma of our times, and how we attribute value.
There are extremes generated by the digitisation of our lives. When there is no original, there is also no copy, and therefore the copy and the original become one. The game Second Life is a good example. Not far from it is Minecraft. But also, games like GTA, where the simulation of reality and the possibility to apply people’s behaviour in characters is becoming increasingly a copy of the player’s behaviour. On top of that there is also the interaction with other users using the same strategy. It is imaginable to see users behaving like their avatars. But the question remains, who is copying who?
The viability of virtual relationships creates parallel worlds that cannot be ignored anymore. The Japanese fascination with human rights has impressed me since the late 90s when I lived there. My first book at Taschen, Digital Beauties (2001), which came out almost at the same time of Final Fantasy, the film, signalled that virtual and reproducible characters meant a disruption in our understanding of real-virtual boundaries. When this threshold is broken, pandora’s box is open and the consequences and possibilities can be unimaginable and intriguing.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.