There’s a sense in which the digital is a copy at its origin. It has no uniqueness, no originality. The difference between the first copy and subsequent copies is just a time stamp in the file system.
In 1936, Walter Benjamin was thinking about the digital before it existed:
That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the ‘aura’ of the work of art. The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition and substitutes plurality of copies for a unique existence.
The digital seems like a black hole, a format that is non-auratic at its core. While digital files can be very amusing, can they ever have the ‘aura’ and unique presence of the original work of art? As we look at the digital objects surrounding us, it seems as though we could be having one of Phillip K. Dick’s nightmares.
Layering the digital on top of the digital, mashing up a new media venue reveals a real time moment that has an originality at the point of contact. Live radio broadcast over the real time web creates a moment of danger, imperfection and improvisation. I’m not talking about commercial radio stuffed down another channel, but the kind of stuff that is emerging from micro-communities within the social web. While these files can be consumed on a digital delay, at the present moment of their creation they show every sign of having an ‘aura.’ You can see it happen sometimes with live music, and in rare cases with comedy. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a kind of spark or electricity that happens when you can actually hear people listening to each other. The members of the Firesign Theater are eloquent on this point:
“There was no leader,” Bergman says. “Everything was communally written, and if one person didn’t agree about something, no matter how strongly the other three felt about it, it didn’t go in.” This principle was to hold true with each subsequent Firesign effort because, as Bergman explains, “If one of us doesn’t get it then something’s wrong. But if we get it, then it doesn’t matter who else does.” All the Firesigns agree, however, that a mysterious synergy took place whenever the four of them got together. “It’s like, suddenly there is this fifth guy that actually does the writing,” Austin says. “We all vaguely sort of know him, and a lot of the time take credit for him.”
The real time web has the potential to offer redemption to the digital, the return of the detached aura in that moment of creation. While the digital has proven itself as a bread winner, it’s only just now learning how to dance.