A colleague and I were talking today about originals. The Mona Lisa (La Gioconda to you Europeans) which hangs in the Louvre is an original. That particular organization of molecules, that unique object composed of poplar and paint (and perhaps a bit of human sweat) arranged into those precise brush strokes, exists nowhere else in the world.
Yes, each year it becomes possible to make a better and better reproduction. There was a time when fakes could be detected by even the amateur hobbyist. The paint color or reflectivity might be slightly off, or the brush texture not quite right. Some of the materials used by Leonardo were manufactured by methods no longer in use. The source of the paint ingredients might not be fully known, nor the exact composition of the brushes. The original trove of poplar trees that supplied the panel material itself may no longer exist. It would be quite difficult to replicate all those materials precisely through other means.
But technology will indeed continue to improve. Nano-fabrication will, in not all that many years, be able to replicate everything we can measure — surface texture and reflectance, mass distribution, force compliance, subsurface scattering of light, and a host of other properties. We will eventually be able to analyze and then resynthesize molecules into any arrangement we desire.
In short, technology will allow us to replicate objects so well that copies will be indistinguishable from originals.
And at that point, will we still have the same reverence for the original Mona Lisa? My instinct tells me we will, but I wonder whether my instinct is wrong. After all, I’ve spent my entire life in a world where one cannot make a perfect physical copy of a sixteenth century portrait, and so have you.
But maybe we are wrong. Maybe our sense that the original Mona Lisa has intrinsic value is merely an artifact of the impossibility of making a perfect copy. Suppose a perfect copy could be made — in the sense that the copy was in every way indistinguishable from the original. Would we still have this sense?
I can think of at least one historical precedent. There was a time when there was far more reverence for the Master Tapes in recorded music. It was rightly understood that if something ever happened to those tapes, some essential aspect of the recorded music would be irretrievably lost.
But then a funny thing happened. Digital recording advanced to the point where those tapes could be scanned to a fidelity that was significantly greater than the capabilities of human hearing.
This level of fidelity was not achieved right away. And sure enough, in those early days of lousy digital CD versions, Master Tapes were still revered. But once the aesthetic information they contained was fully digitized, that reference began to fade away. It turned out that it wasn’t the tapes themselves, with their mystical connection to the Beatles, or Hendrix, or some other source of musical genius. It was just the information all the time.
And if we ever manage to completely capture all the aesthetic information embodied by the Mona Lisa (admittedly, a vastly greater amount of information), would we (or, more likely, our descendants) cease to care about, or acknowledge — or even continue to notice — the original object?