The Digital “Aura”

As we recall, Walter Benjamin announced the loss of the aura consecutive with the mechanical reproduction of works of art. The question, then, is this: Does the development of information technology leads to a definitive and total loss of the aura? In other words, are the information technologies only the pursuit of mechanical techniques? Are they simply amplifying their effects? Or, do they introduce a rupture? In the case of the aura, the question concerns its current status: has it definitively disappeared? Or, does some form of resurgence of the aura persist?

Undoubtedly, digital technologies perfect the reproduction processes of works of art. Thanks to these, reproduction is nearly free: nowadays, it costs neither a lot of money, nor large amounts of energy, to duplicate information. We could characterize this current ease to reproduce as being a state of hyper-reproducibility by analogy to the state of hyper-conductivity for the electrical conductivity.

Furthermore, diffusion is also practically free and accessible to everybody. Currently, it becomes possible for anyone to divulge in the entire world literature, pictures or sounds without having to ask for authorization and without owning any infrastructure, except a PC. As a consequence, today information is becoming eminently diffusible almost everywhere on the surface of the earth. For instance, in 2011, during Arab spring, young students sent, with no support, videos of the public events in Tunisia or Egypt, while 20 years before, in China, or in many other authoritarian countries, it had been impossible to send images of the dramatic event that were happening in the streets. Always by reference to the morphology of hyperconductivity, we shall characterize this state as a hyper-diffusibility.

Lastly, any pictures and sounds can be easily captured with very cheap equipment, like a mobile phone, and then memorized on small and inexpensive electronic storage devices. As a result, and by the same way of previously, we can say that we enter in a world of hyper-memorisability.

All the techniques of reproduction, diffusion and memorization that had so greatly contributed to the disappearance of the aura have been so considerably improved that the result exceeds our cognitive abilities. As a consequence, our faculties of discernment are insufficient. The total available content cannot be consumed by the human mind, even helped by powerful machines. In other words, it is becoming more and more difficult to filter the flow of data that assails every one of us, each day, and to focus on the relevant information. Therefore, we have to make choices, to decide on which object we will focus our attention and then to select, among the many pieces of information that concern our object of interest, which ones we would prefer to explore. However, those different choices cannot be well informed, because they are anterior to our possession of knowledge. As a consequence, we choose according to some unconscious criteria that constitute a kind of halo—or a cloud—enveloping the objects and attracting our mind. Such criteria correspond to the above-mentioned involuntary memory; therefore, we call it the digital halo or the digital aura.

Note that, as we have previously shown in our work on sousveillance (Ganascia 2009, 2010), this digital aura becomes increasingly important because, in our world of excessive abundance of information, the power is far more often given to those who are viewed than to those who watch.

Our hypothesis here is that we can draw some parallels between this digital halo and Benjamin's aura. Among them, note that while the aura requires concentration, it is same with the digital halo. Furthermore, as we previously said, while the aura was directly related to involuntary memory, it is also the case that the digital halo is largely unconscious.

However, as we previously mentioned, for Benjamin the notion of aura was directly related to the cult value, to an attachment to traditions and to a contemplative attitude. It might seem surprising and even strange to affirm that, with the digital technologies, we adopt a contemplative attitude oriented towards traditions. To be more precise, the first hypothesis, drawing a parallel between Benjamin's aura and the digital halo, needs to be complemented by a second hypothesis that states that, while Benjamin's aura was attached to a cult value, oriented towards traditions, the digital aura is attached to a specular value, which opens on new opportunities. In other words, while the cult value was oriented towards an immemorial past, the specular value is oriented towards an accessible and free future that is full of possibilities.

This notion of digital aura in relation to a specular value would be useful to interpret many of the contemporary movements in art, especially the generative art, which cannot be evaluated with respect to their exhibition value and no longer with respect to a cult value, but only with respect to the number of possibilities that a program can generate. It would be suitable to follow with some precise examples, which would justify the two preceding hypotheses, but this would be far in excess of this chapter.

Recall also that Benjamin's definition of the aura as “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be” could be directly applied to the digital aura. Nevertheless, while in the case of Benjamin's aura, close and concrete elements of works of art helped to give access, through contemplation, to a far past, anterior to what can be provided by any voluntary memory, with the digital aura, close and concrete information elements help to give access to a far future that opens on new perspectives, despite all perceived dangers and fears.

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