Personality in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Responding to Walter Benjamin's work, 80 years later.

The impact of social media on contemporary society is undeniable. Its rise over the last decade has given us an unprecedented power: the ability to communicate and spread our ideas far and wide in a matter of milliseconds. However, with such power in our hands, we must begin to question how our self expression has evolved alongside our technology. Newer generations are being raised with mass media at the touch of a finger, and older ones are constantly portraying themselves and sharing their personalities on social media. How has this rise affected how we see and portray ourselves?

Our personalities are surprisingly similar to works of art. They are the product of uniqueness, the product of a non-deterministic function where the inputs are experiences and the outputs are undefined. By this definition, we can’t hold two people accountable to the same standard - even after having similar experiences, they will always possess unique convictions. In terms of similarity, we can share ideas, but the framework that analyzes these is always different.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin defines the aura of a work of art as a combination of authenticity, historical testimony, and authority. Each of the previously stated elements depend on each other, to form what would be the “aura” of a work. As part of Walter’s critique on Mechanical Reproduction, he explains that the reproduction of a work of art jeopardizes its aura, because a copy of such doesn’t carry the historical context and authenticity which the original piece contains. As he explains:

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. […] that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of a work of art.

When a work of art is reproduced, the copy of the work does not possess the stunningness of the original - it does not transmit the intransmissible (history, context, and impact) - no matter how precise the reproduction is. Reproductions in art can’t transmit an aura, because by nature they are purely abstract constructs, and embedded in our culture rather than the physical world.

Similar to works of art, our personalities contain all the qualifying traits to possess an aura. We possess authenticity due to our non-deterministic nature. We possess a historical context due to our presence in space and time. Our presence also mutates the course of history, as small as the direct/indirect impact may seem, which provides authority. Several other new abstract constructs grant uniqueness and aura to the self, like power, influence, and the will to achieve.

Now that we established that personality has an aura, the question that the rise of social media presents is clear: how do we accurately portray this aura in a digital medium? How do we translate this originality from analog to digital? Is it possible to make this conversion without losing something in translation? This is a hard question to answer, simply based on how different both mediums are. We’re talking about two separate realities here: the virtual world and the real space.

It’s difficult to believe that it’s possible to portray your aura digitally accurately, simply because by definition auras don’t bond with reproduction. Expressing ourselves online, be it in an online comment or blog post, is a reproduction of the self; a manifestation of your thoughts in a digital medium. A “digital aura” does not comply with the three factors that define Walter’s. Our digital personalities aren’t inherently authentic; in fact, more often than not, they are easy subjects to manipulation. A great example would be how easily we can transform our personal history on social media as we please. We can delete bad relationships at the click of a button, we can rewrite and mutate history at will. Not only this, but our digital personas are coldly premeditated and lack spontaneity - they lack our presence in history, they lack our unexpected decisions, they are not original.

The medium of expression is another way where the loss in translation is clearly visible. It requires true linguistic mastery to convey our emotions strongly through text - and even then, it would be impossible to carry over certain qualities of our aura like our energy. Video, while a big improvement over text, does not still carry the spontaneity of reality to the digital world. Our personalities are best portrayed alongside the randomness of reality - without a rewind, delete, or trim button.

The possibility of forging a new personality, combined with our natural search for superiority and power, destroys the possibility of true authenticity online. It’s impossible to faithfully reproduce your personality digitally not just because of its abstractness, but because of basic human nature. We will always try to rewrite the narrative to best position ourselves. I like to compare our digital personalities to converting music from vinyl to digital. In the conversion from continuous to discrete data, some subtleties are lost in translation. This subtlety is our aura.

On another hand, it is possible to argue that the creation of this new reality parallel to ours redefines the rules and creates the “digital aura”. From another perspective, if one considers the virtual world to be a new one, it is possible for originality to exist simply because of the fact that everyone brings something new to the table. We’re, as explained earlier, naturally non-deterministic. Even when trying to emulate someone else’s behavior, there will be a digression at some point; this is what could make our digital personalities original.

In this case, digital auras vaguely follow the traditional definition by Walter. They do possess authenticity, because they’re created by beings who naturally produce it. Even when trying to emulate others or fake our own personality, we always put our own spin on it. They have a presence in space and time; in the cyberspace, their posts are digitally tagged with a timestamp and clustered together with, for example, news articles from world events. Our digital personas witness history and form part of it, in a different dimension parallel to ours. They also possess authority due to the real-life massive influence they can exert on the cyberspace, and sometimes even the world.

It’s almost beautiful how we create better versions of ourselves online, to the point where you may consider them to become works of art, similar to literary pieces. At times, we strive to create alter-egos that are extremely original in the pursuit of creating a new life online that reflects everything we wish to be. Some digital personas exert so much authority and originality, that they stand out in incredible ways. This is the case for the recent wave of “social media influencers” - digital personas which amass massive amounts of impact and reach as entertainers or knowledge figures. Influencers typically build an online persona, and attract a following to that persona.

This social media phenomenon also drives us to an indirect form of reproduction, which is emulation. We typically to emulate people we look up to, and social media has exacerbated this in a new way. Seeing our social circles and their fake personas makes us want to be like the people who create them. We wish to live the extravagant (and false) lifestyles our friends share in social media, so we do it too. We imitate others to fit the stereotype of the “happy person in social media”. This even applies to influencers - their, well, influence sometimes changes the way we think or act.

Now, how do we stand out in a world of emulation and false digital personas? There is a correlation between originality and success. Most influencers tend to have very distinct behavior which attracts the masses to them in search of entertainment. Success in the social media age is based on unpredictability, originality, and the creation of auras rather than the translation of them.

These are days when no one should rely unduly on his “competence”. Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.

I believe this Walter Benjamin quote applies today more than ever. We live in an age where personal creativity and originality creates success. It is possible to attract massive followings by creating a digital persona and digital aura. This is an age of creating new frontiers and exploring how far human creativity can go.

Authenticity isn’t lost in the age of “Mechanical Reproduction”.

It has just evolved with us.

Thanks for reading!

I'm passionate about maker culture, technology, and life.
Follow me on Twitter to stay in the loop on my latest creations and writings!