Is Matter What Matters?

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While I have long been an eager adopter of technology and digital innovation, I also maintain a fondness for the analog and physical. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my media collection. In the past twenty years, usage has increasingly shifted away from physical ownership of objects and towards rights ownership of digital files (and further, towards streaming media without any real ownership at all). And I’ve adapted to this transition in a conflicted way. On one hand, I’m entirely comfortable with using Netflix and Hulu for video, as well as maintaining my collection of games through the proprietary management of Steam. On the other hand, I still prefer to buy music on CDs, and to own physical copies of books.

My rationale is somewhat practical and also somewhat emotional. In one sense, the tools don’t yet exist for me to feel wholly comfortable in managing my music collection in an entirely digital space. While Netflix, Hulu, and Steam have noticeable gaps in their coverage, I don’t mind, as I simply dip in to access the content that appears attractive from their catalogs. But a similar lack of certain music on Spotify or other streaming systems is more problematic, as I’ve invested more effort into curating my own collection of things that I like. I prefer to maintain a stricter sense of control for my music, including being able to reconstruct the digital files from the physical backups if needed.

In another sense, the meaning embodied in my physical media collection is closely connected to nostalgia for the analog object and the construction of a representation of my cultural tastes. The nostalgia point is not particularly new or isolated: even as digital sales have displaced the physical, sales of vinyl records have climbed tremendously. You can even find independent artists producing brand new music on the long-obsolete format of the cassette tape, embracing the limitations and deficiencies of the form as a way to provide texture to the experience. Most directly, having a shelf of CDs provides a physical representation of my conceptions of musical merit in a way that can be visible and open to interaction and dialogue.

I’m explaining this in depth to get around to a larger point about questions of meaning and authenticity in the physical object, particularly in the context of historical artifacts. The modern possibility of digitization is only a transformational change in terms of scope, not kind. If we conceive of every physical object encoding a certain amount of ‘information’ that has historical or aesthetic merit, humans have always had ways to reference that information in a secondary manner: consider a picture or painting of a building, or reprinting the Declaration of Independence in a textbook. What the digital turn enables is simply a much more thorough and holistic means to extract and preserve that information. Now, we can recreate the same building in a digital environment and enable a user to virtually tour it, or even scan an object and print a 3D copy of it with a high degree of accuracy in its replication.

‘Information,’ as I use the term, includes aspects that we may not initially see as remarkable, and good digital preservation of an object should extract as much as possible, including physical dimensions, format, material, etc. As a cursory example, the plaintext of the Declaration of Independence doesn’t capture the size or form of John Hancock’s signature on the document. But information by itself is just information; data outside of context has no meaning or merit.

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The individual constructs ‘meaning’ in a way highly dependent on its (physical, historical, intellectual) context, and thus the original object and its digital form are inherently different. Even the same physical object, when placed in different contexts, takes on a vastly different meaning. Art museums recognize this, in seeking to build exhibits that place the works in the right sequence of other works and with attention paid to how each painting is framed, positioned, and lit. Or to use an even more striking example from Jeb Boniakowski:

I’ve often thought that a lot of what makes crazy restaurant food taste crazy is the solemn appreciation you lend to it. If you put a Cheeto on a big white plate in a formal restaurant and serve it with chopsticks and say something like “It is a cornmeal quenelle, extruded at a high speed, and so the extrusion heats the cornmeal ‘polenta’ and flash-cooks it, trapping air and giving it a crispy texture with a striking lightness. It is then dusted with an ‘umami powder’ glutamate and evaporated-dairy-solids blend.” People would go just nuts for that.

The point is that a digital copy of an analog object absolutely has different meaning than the original. But that’s not to say that it’s inferior or lacking. Just different. If a digital object is carefully preserved, and then the physical object suffers damage or degradation, the digital variant might actually be more valuable and relevant in terms of preserving certain historical information and usefulness. The only reason to privilege the physical original over the digital copy is due to our own conceptions of meaning and authenticity, both of which are socially constructed.

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The malleability of authenticity is not necessarily a new problem. One story from Boccaccio’s The Decameron of 1353CE has an Islamic sultan challenging a Jewish merchant to claim whether Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is the singular true religion. The merchant responds by relating a parable of a man with a priceless ring that serves as a symbol of authority and status, passed down from generation to generation to recognize its bearer as the rightful heir of the family. However, when the man finds himself unable to pick one of three equally virtuous sons to leave the ring to, he has a craftsman make two exact replicas of the ring, so closely matched as to be indistinguishable. In leaving the rings to the sons, each this that he had the original, and the others the copies — thus representing a clever answer to escape the difficult question of which religious tradition was true.

So then, authenticity is what you make of it. But when an Italian miller used the same story in the sixteenth century to explain his heretical views, Catholic inquisitors did not look so fondly upon the metaphor. He was burnt at the stake — perhaps it would be more accurate to say that authenticity is what the people with power make of it. You can see this in operation today in what objects are physically preserved, what gets digitized, and what gets left out entirely. I don’t intend to argue that this is necessarily wrong or bad, particularly as historians have moved towards inclusion and reflectiveness upon their own practice. But the view that authenticity is some quality that innately exists within an object and provides some kind of mystical merit feels naive and unhelpful. Rather than working singlemindedly to preserve authenticity, let’s think hard about meaning and context, and work to coordinate those in a helpful way.

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