The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

In his seminal 1991 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction," the video artist Douglas Davis writes that digital bits "can be endlessly reproduced, without degradation, always the same, always perfect."

This is different, Davis argues, from analogue information. In the past, copying an audio signal -- for example, dubbing a copy of a cassette tape -- always involved an unpredictable loss of clarity, which Davis compares to waves washing on a beach, always breaking slightly differently. But "digital bits, compatible with the new generation of tools that see, hear, speak, and compute, march in precise, soldierly fashion, one figure after another."

I made the above video in 2007 as a response to Douglas Davis' ideas on the iron-clad reproducibility of digital media. It's an animation of the process of saving an image file in incrementally lower file formats over hundreds of times. Aesthetically, the final result approximates Davis' description of analogue information as a "wave breaking on a beach, breaking over and over but never precisely in the same form." And yet, of course, it is an entirely digital object.

It seems to me that despite our collective faith in the fidelity of digital media -- evidenced by our willingness to digitize our material, tangible valuables (money, for example, or personal photographs) -- decay remains an inherent property of our world. All things decay, tend towards entropy: our current models of digital compression, which seem faultless now, will "decay" relatively as more and more authentic modes of compression are invented, higher qualities are reached. The MP3 files we thought were the bee's knees in the 90s haven't deteriorated physically, but they have become increasingly obsolete in the face of FLAC and MPEG-4 files, which is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing. Stewart Brand, the writer and futurist, points out in his book Clock Of The Long Now that while we can still read and interpret Mesopotamian clay tablets, the 8" floppy disks that held all our data ten years ago are approaching unreadability. In twenty years, we'll still be able to decode hieroglyphics, but what about our emails? Of course, this is relative: even those clay tablets and hieroglyphics will turn to dust eventually.

We understand our world through the lens of change and decay; waves breaking on the beach while new ones form, robustly, out at sea.

Incidentally, the title of Davis' essay is an homage to Walter Benjamin's famous 1935 article, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which argues, among other things, that mass-media access to art liberates it from its traditional "parasitic" dependence on ritual, ownership, and place. Benjamin believed that the "aura" of a work of art (that sense of awe and reverence we get from being in the presence of it) is not something inherent to art, but rather a cultural side-effect of its exclusivity, restricted exhibition, authenticity, or perceived value. In the burgeoning age of "mechanical reproduction" (i.e. printed copies, films, and photographs), that aura disappears, freeing art from its ties to the bourgeoisie and allowing mass audiences to, in a sense, "own" the work.

The age of digital reproduction undoubtedly redoubles this effect, democratizing media more rapidly and more thoroughly than Benjamin could ever have anticipated. One needn't ever see the Mona Lisa, for example, to understand its value; the image has taken on a hyperreal quality that anyone with a cursor can tap into. We have moved beyond consuming media and into making it ourselves -- artists can download, remix, and redistribute work as they see fit.

But do digital copies retain fidelity to their originals?

The below video is a similar experiment to the first: by filming an event (i.e. the "original"), then projecting it on a wall (i.e. the "reproduction"), then re-filming, and re-projecting, the image and experience of the original disappears.

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I think your experiments miss the point completely.

In the analogue world, transferring information from source X to identical destination Y (ie, from high quality cassette tape to high quality cassette tape) results in loss of information: Artifacts appear, there is a decay in the signal at some point with every generation. This is usually not the case in digital reproduction. Transfer a JPEG image from one hard drive to another, and the image (as well as the file itself) remains identical, without loss or change of information whatsoever.

Your first experiment attempts to equate copying a file to opening, re-saving and re-compressing the information in that file, effectively and actively changing that information each time that the file is re-saved. That is not a straight forward copy of the file, but an active re-configuration of its bits to produce a lower-quality file. That is to say: Youâre not just telling the computer to simply make a copy of the file as closely as possible to the original. Youâre actually telling it to make changes to the information in the original to produce the copy. This is not a flaw of digital copying, but a result of your specific command.

In your second experiment, you make a digital copy through analogue means (namely: camera lenses), then project that digital object as closely as analogue equipment can project it (making an analogue âcopyâ of it), and then making another digital copy of this new (and substantially degraded) analogue 1st generation copy through (once again) analogue means. You then repeat this process until the image is no longer recognizable. Does this suggest that there is a natural process of decay inherent to digital media? No, it doesnât.

Please bear in mind that Iâm not saying that digital media is incapable of corruption, involuntary change and some sort of decay from copy to copy via purely digital and untampered means. What Iâm trying to explain is that your experiments do not demonstrate this decay in any way.

Alfonso: what you say is quite true, but I think your comments miss the point. I don't think Claire's use of the word "experiment" is meant in the scientific sense, but rather in the artistic sense. She's experimenting with perceptions and portrayals of digital media, engaging in a "thought experiment," not engaging in controlled or empirical experimentation.* One of the little frustrations of being at Scienceblogs is that anytime one uses a word with multiple senses, it's construed in the scientific sense by default - not a bad thing, but difficult to maintain cross-disciplinary conversations. :)

*Of course if Claire meant experimentation in the scientific method sense, disregard my comment. . . but I seriously doubt it.

@Alfonso, although I totally appreciate your eye for detail and your civility in setting me straight, @bioephemera is right: these are aesthetic experiments, not scientific or technical ones. I'm only attempting to point out that our perception of the inherent analogue or digital look of data can be replicated, manipulated, and played with. I'm still new to ScienceBlogs, and I'm learning to adapt my language to the audience -- it never even occurred to me that the word "experiment" might be too loaded for un-prefaced use. I come from a background where "experimental" means "unconventional."

Stewart Brand, the writer and futurist, points out in his book Clock Of The Long Now that while we can still read and interpret Mesopotamian clay tablets, the 8'' floppy disks that held all our data ten years ago are approaching unreadability

You had 8-inch floppies only 10 years ago? Wow. What kind of techno-luddites did you hang out with in those days?
I had thought 8-inch floppies were an endangered species by 1989. In any case - floppies, whether 8, 5 1/4, or 3 1/2, need to be cared for quite well to last even 10 years. CDs often don't last 10 years either.

It might be hard to justify linking to this 'ol article on a science blog, but I think that it is necessary for the sake of keeping it a responsible conversation on all accounts. Dispersion

P.S. I love this blog! Don't adapt your language too much!