Born-Digital Content after the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin’s criticism of mechanical reproduction centers around the fact that individual copies of a work are not the original. The aura he refers to is the sense of authenticity behind the experience of having or viewing an original item rather than a copy of an item. Because of the historical context in which he was writing, he makes the assumption that there always is an original out there somewhere. We make the same assumption when we refer to “copies” of a work (but that’s just an example of how our language lags behind the understandings we reach of things).

The concept of born-digital content, which Walter Benjamin may not have been able to conceptualize, throws a little bit of a wrench into his argument. We could say that born-digital content has no original by definition; thus, by Walter Benjamin’s argument, these works are devoid of any aura to be found anywhere. Finding tragedy in the existence of permanently inauthentic content is the logical conclusion of his ideas.

But let’s try framing born-digital content another way. If a work belongs to the digital space, it’s not unreasonable to say that the original exists within digital space rather than any physical space. By this logic, a space remains which one can access in order to perceive the aura of born-digital artifacts. Walter Benjamin does, after all, define the particular space, the “place where it happens to be”, as a defining aspect of the aura.

The idea of real authenticity of experience in digital content may contradict Walter Benjamin’s proclamation that the “sphere of authenticity is outside the technical.” Behind this proclamation, however, is the equation of technology with reproduction. It’s undeniable that reproduction plays an enormous role within the digital space. A great many items in the digital space can be copied and posted elsewhere with relative ease, an ease far greater than the mass production of works that existed in Walter Benjamin’s lifetime.

Social media involves a great deal of copying–or does it? While the copying and re-posting of items certainly occurs on social media, what more often occurs is sharing; the links that we reproduce tend to lead back to the location the image, video, article, etc. was originally posted. Even embedding a YouTube video leads back to the location the video is hosted on YouTube’s servers.

But would Walter Benjamin still consider any digital-born content to be authentically original? We may not be able to know, and to a certain extent it does not matter. The practical point of his argument is his criticism of capitalism, specifically that the reproduction of art feeds the capitalist machine despite reproduction adding accessibility. The question, then, becomes whether content being born digital can create that accessibility without contributing to capitalist enterprise. The answer to that will vary from content to content, but it’s also worth asking whether (and how) the internet is becoming more or less capitalist and unequal.

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