Did you know that? Almost a hundred years ago, Paul Valéry invented the remote control: Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign. As a reminder for the historically challenged: back then, “tele vision” was a weirdo futurist phantasy involving a Nipkow disk, placing a phone call started with cranking a bit of electricity out of a Bakelite contraption, and any HTML would have qualified as a typo.
Of course, some things didn’t change at all. Except for the pope, even back then most western men have been wearing (mostly) trousers, cars ran (mostly) on distilled dinosaur juice, and Valéry already had described the future cable ops as utilities.
With Valéry, that’s more or less how Walter Benjamin starts his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In some parts, it got a bit dusty. The Frankfurt School has seen some better days. But in very many parts, Benjamin got hyper-accelerated:
Mechanical reproduction is so 20th century, and a bit lame.
But digital reproduction unleashes the powers Benjamin describes, just as the web brings Valéry’s science fictionesque image utility to an ultimate conclusion.
Digital is merciless in its binary absolutism:
0 vs. 1, off vs. on, dead or alive.
But other things have changed, too. Benjamin lived in the magic triangle of a world between capitalism, communism, and fascism. This world was a real mess: weirdo dictators ousting weirdo kings and dapper dukes and crazy czars out of their weirdo fiefdoms (the continental breakfast), megalomanic monopolists/monarchists squeezing out the continents (the anglos saxon model), with hyper-capitalists acting as stateless dictators and crowned heads running commercial empires.
We left at least some of that behind, and good riddance. But our globalized economy, our fully commercialized western life style comes with its own pitfalls. And, coming back to Benjamin and his theme: The most important thing which happenend to The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction is not a scratch in its aura, but the economic damage towards its creator.
You still could put your hands on Benjamin’s mechanically reproduced piece. The medium was a thingy, a tradable good. But on its way into the networked Nirvana, the work lost this handle to the commercial world. A file is a file is a file. And an unlimited supply of any good means usually bad business. Selling sand in the Sahara. Ice cubes on the north pole. You name it.
Can we change that? Sure we can. We already started to melt the poles (which, for various reasons, is not an advisable approach). We tried some crazy DRM-schemes (ankle-high dikes vs. terrible tsunami). We’re messing around with civil liberties (protecting a Lady Gaga recording’s right vs. everybody else’s rights).
Again: can we really solve that conundrum? Most likely not, if we just pretend, that everything has just to stay the same. Mind you, the medium isn’t dead. But it has lost some of its commercial magic. So if you think you might need some new fairy dust pretty soonish, please crank up your Bakelite contraption and buzz me. Otherwise, you might just have to wait a bit for ionicc’s ideas on how to hedge against billions of bad boys copying your creative goods.