Matthew Hutson, English 111, Brown University (1998)
Because bits can be transferred and duplicated from one physical medium to another without degeneration, this opens the possibilities for mass reproduction and distribution of information. In the analog world, when one wants to reproduce information, one must speak it or dub it or photocopy it. Because of analog information's unique and infinitely complex nature, this process always distorts, disperses, or misinterprets at least some nuance of the original manifestation of its meaning. The inseparably intimate relationship between the message and the matter is torn and imitated. The data loses its original character and picks up unintended traits, or merely degenerates into noise.
As analog information passes from one material state to another (After all, analog "information" is in fact matter, nothing more. Conversely, we may consider matter nothing more than information.), artifacts of each respective material form embed themselves in the abstract meaning we extract from the material arrangement. This also means that by examining a particular sample of analog media we can often trace its unique history of bed-fellows, so to speak. For example, one can listen to a tape dubbed from a vinyl record, and one will realize immediately that the tape was dubbed from a vinyl record, due to the characteristic scratches and pops left by dust in its grooves.
Art dealers have taken this practice of process-interpolation to sophisticated levels. In their efforts to determine whether a given painting is an original, they've collaborated with scientists and engineers to develop methods for detecting a particular work's age and history. Much of this intense scrutiny lies in our cultural dependence upon art for its ritualistic purposes. Although distanced from this originally sacred purpose of art, we continue to value originals over reproductions. Perhaps the clearest intermediary stage between today's values and those of our ancestors would be the Renaissance. Artistic creation was considered a divine act, the painter working as the hand of God. Thus an original piece of valued artwork, assuming that it was divinely inspired, contained God's eternal message in every figure and every stroke; art approached the infinite, a transcendental bridge between heaven and humanity. A reproduction, the work of a technically skilled painter with access to the original and a great deal of patience, was void of meaning, a flat impostor of the truly infinite.
These, of course, are my own speculations, but I'm not the first to recognize art's original basis in ritual. Walter Benjamin elucidates the effects of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century on the devaluation of art: "When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy was lost forever. The resulting change in the function of art transcended the perspective of the century . . ." He exclaims that reproduced artwork lacks an "aura" that can only belong to an original.
This insistence upon genuine artistic inspiration has been mapped onto our notion of secular authority. God's laws no longer run our society; today He/She/it has to share it with the State. Our culture is based upon spiritual connection, genuine artistic merit, and now the enforcement of centralized secular power. Only God can license true inspiration (as some argue), and only the State can license legitimate currency. All state documents, driver's licenses, and police badges must discourage unlawful reproduction, making their government-sanctioned legitimacy explicitly clear. Thus we have watermarks, ultraviolet overlays, holograms (on credit-cards too), and bar-code tattoos. Anyone with a personal computer can appropriate, modify, and reproduce strings of bits, but the equipment necessary for duplicating such analog authenticity trademarks stands well out of reach of the everyday hacker
Although not distinctly referencing digital culture, Walter Benjamin hints at this transference of authenticity-reliance from sacred to secular in his writing:
. . . for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the "authentic" print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice--politics.
Once the source of authority is transfered toward politics, humans suddenly have much more control over what we deem authentic. Rules become maleable. Truth becomes maleable.