Since I posted on the work of writing in the age of digital replication, I have begun, finally, to read Lev Manovich‘s The Language of New Media, part of which relates to what I was addressing in that post. My argument was essentially that a digital copy of a digital object “is always entirely identical to its original and to every other copy,” but Manovich proposes, among his several principles of new media, a principle of variability, which states that “a new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite variations.”
What Manovich means by this is that the same digital object can be, and often is, altered and modified according to the specifications of each user, so that each user has, at least in potential, access to many variations of the same digital object. For example, the digital object of this post will be used to produce many variant digital objects by different users. Some will read it through one or another feed reader. Some will read it through this site itself. Some will see it first in a search engine’s display. These people will be using various browsers, various graphics drivers, and various operating systems. All of these things will manipulate the original digital object and create a variation of it for the end users.
Now, Manovich’s principle and my own are not mutually exclusive, but they do emphasize two apparently opposing characteristics of the digital object, and they do raise the question of how exactly digital objects are related to the copies and the variations that are made from them. In this respect, I would suggest that it is necessary to refine the idea of the copy as such, whether it is being used to describe digital objects or physical ones, and I would argue that every copy is distinct from its source object both in space and in time. Whatever continuity there may be in the content of the object, in the words or the code or the images that it bears, it is always temporally and spatially discontinuous from every other copy. Whether I am printing a new edition of a book or copying a file for a friend, the copy is always discontinuous from its original.
This distinction may seem obvious, but it is necessary to insist on it in order to realize the difference between how digital objects relate to their copies as opposed to how physical objects do so. When I take a physical object, I can mark it, individualize it, make it more unique. When I do so, I create an object that is new, in a very real sense, but one that is not temporally and spatially discontinuous with the one that it replaced. When I add notes in its margins, or spill coffee on it, or put a dedication on its flyleaf, or bend the corners of its pages to mark my place, I make that object different from the object that it was, but this object is not discontinuous in time and space from the previous object. This is what allows the user to fetishize the physical object, what makes it available to the user as an object of nostalgia or obsession. It is a new and unique object, but it is physically and historically continuous with the object of the user’s memory. It takes a place in history. It is, in fact, entirely irreplaceable.
When I make changes to a digital object, however, these changes do not modify an object that remains continuous with the one that was changed. Instead, they always create an entirely new digital object. There is never any way for the digital object to be changed except to be created as entirely new. It can only be the source for a new object that is in every case entirely discontinuous spatially and temporally from the one that preceded it, and this new object can only be identical with the source object or not. It has no other way to appear. There will never be the digital equivalent of coffee stains or bent corners, because any such interventions become embodied in the new object itself. Even if it replaces the object that preceded it, it is a new and discontinuous object. Even if it maintains a history of the changes that have been made to it, it is a new and discontinuous object.
It is precisely because digital objects function in this way that they can be made identical, producing copies that are able to replace their originals in every respect. One copy is a good as another. So long as they are copies, any one will do. This is why, while it is still possible to fetishize the function and the history of a digital object, it is never possible to fetishize one copy of this digital object over another. It is possible for me to have nostalgia for a digital song or computer program, but one copy of these objects will always be as good to me as another, because they will always be entirely interchangeable. They will never have dog ears or creases or stains that make them identifiably mine and identifiably a part of my history. They will always remain invisible to my memory and to my history and to my nostalgia.
What Manovich’s principle of variability recognizes, therefore, is the ability of a particular digital object to be manipulated endlessly, but what it fails to recognize is that these manipulations are not variations of the original digital object at all, but entirely new digital objects in themselves. Though they have used the original object as a source, they are no longer continuous with it spatially or temporally. In other words, exactly counter to what I quoted from Manovich in my opening paragraph, a new media object is indeed fixed once and for all, however many further objects might use it as a source. It cannot, as Manovich claims, exist in potentially infinite variations. It can only be a source for a potentially infinite set of new objects. While a physical object might potentially exist in many ways as it becomes subject to the alterations of time and space, this is precisely the thing that the digital object can never do.