The passing of Steve Jobs understandably prompted a chorus of grief and eulogy among his fans, along with refrains of the usual hyperboles voiced during his lifetime in praise of his genius and technological vision. Although I admire the evident courage he exhibited during his final years as he struggled with his health, I have never much appreciated his or Apple's work. Like Charlie the Tuna, Apple tries to pass as the embodiment of good taste, when what I want is an Apple that tastes good, namely, a computer that works when you plug it in, turn it on, and try to make it do things. One day, probably not in my lifetime, the self-proclaimed revolutionaries will stride victorious beyond that distant milestone. Call me an idealist. Until then, I must settle for the available pretend versions, a la Fisher-Price.
Yet it's clear that many avid fans of Apple gear experience it as life-changing and itself the stuff of radiant beauty and fine design. Still more regard the Internet and the ubiquity of computing technology as cultural developments not only affording high utility but nearly biblically proportioned salvation. Pondering my own discontent with the trajectory of these tools and my disconnection with popular demand for them, it occurred to me that the gadgetry of technology now assumes the aura once regarded as imbuing the unique work of high art, a radiance formerly acknowledged even by those who had no personal appreciation for the work. This formulation is, of course, an adaptation of Walter Benjamin's famous essay examining the fate of art in the face of increasingly easy reproduction and dissemination. Benjamin doesn't signal such an adaptation, which is merely clever, but riddling the essay are numerous proclamations, typical of his oracular style, that speak pertinently to our own times before and after Jobs. For example, he attributes the "withering" of the aura to:
the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.
It's easy to recognize this dynamic at work in the advance of social networking technologies. Reading Twitter streams from participants at an unfolding event in real time is a safe proxy for being there. But Benjamin was writing about art, and some proponents of digital technologies believe they promise opportunitites for new varieties of artistic creativity, facilitated by the rapid manipulation of readily available material into new configurations. Thus, for example, the mash-up or the remix, genres that dispense with coy Eliotic allusion in favor of flagrant copying. Their point is to restructure the familiar without disguising it. They are instances, for better or worse, of "free culture."
Recently, a Harvard English student, Isabel E. Kaplan, upbraided Goldsmith for promoting plagiarism, which she finds offensive. She also uncritically accepts that technology democratizes the exercise of creative skill.
Benjamin’s prediction was right: Today, with the help of technology, everyone is potentially an author. Today, also thanks to technology, potential authors have access to an unprecedented amount of published writing as well. Reading and learning from the works of other writers is a valuable activity for any writer or aspiring writer, and it is wonderful that modern technology allows for such easy access to texts. But the only thing that makes a person a writer is writing, using one’s own words.
Kaplan's confusion is palpable, but not uncommon. Benjamin wasn't predicting eventual universal access to the writer's tools when he wrote, "At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer." He was noting how easily during a time of intense specialization of the worker's task one's experience informs a level of expertise that authorizes a reader to become a writer, and that the technology affords the facility to publish (i.e., reproduce and disseminate) one's work. Kaplan thinks the technology is wonderfully helpful, but Benjamin is additionally aware of the larger context of technological encroachment on workers' lives. The printing technology that allows anybody to become a pamphleteer is just one instance of the ubiquity of machines that control how workers make a living.
Artistic work, then, has grown increasingly redundant. There's more of any subdomain of it than any one person can consume. Much of it is readily accessible, reproducible, and appropriable. With historical and critical perspective, creative works in the aggregate begin to appear as the variations on correlative themes and borrowed ideas they genuinely are. None stands out, none radiates an aura. And yet despite the essential reproducibility of technological devices, the very characteristic that converts them into commodities and allowed Jobs to create and then supply a demand on a massive scale (the true feat of his "genius," I would say), these gizmos emanate their own aura. The "i" in Apple's branding strategy connotes, among other things, the singular individual, his own pod, pad, tune, or cloud. It is the marketing cognate to Kaplan's righteous "own words." Her prescription is quaint at a time when Share-ing and RT-ing are standard ways to express oneself. Another's words are as good as one's own, even better to support retrieval of them in the future. The uniqueness of the "I" can lodge in profile settings and access parameters associated with fresh new devices.