Real versus unreal

In 1935 Walter Benjamin wrote the first draft of his essay on 'Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit' (Benjamin 1936). This essay has influenced thinking about media and representation deeply. In his essay Benjamin first explores the difference between a painting and the reproduction of the same painting. Are they the same for me as a viewer of the painting? Benjamin argues that there is an 'aura' that distinguishes the original from the technically reproduced copy. A copy made by hand will have an aura, so Benjamin argues. It is the technical reproduction that kills the aura and sets it free as well. The technical reproduction can travel where the original can not and also the technical reproduction can make elements visible that can not be perceived in the original because of the use of photographic lenses, different perspectives and so on. The original has an 'aura' that the copy will never have since it can be endlessly reproduced. The copy will acquire its significance and meaning in the context that it appears. The original, through its 'aura', carries its own meaning, which is perceived by the senses and is understood in the context of its tradition. Sensorial perception of the collective of human experience changes over time, argues Benjamin. This resonates with the previously discussed work of Riva, Waterworth and Waterworth, who also base part of their argument on the evolution of the senses (Riva, Waterworth & Waterworth 2004). The sense of presence has evolved along with humankind according to them. Benjamin's analysis of the aura of the original may be understood as the aura of what we call 'natural presence'.

Benjamin continues by saying that because of its reproduction the original painting achieves a serial existence. It loses its tradition but is capable of reaching its audience in their context and doing so, it acquires new meaning in the actual situation of the perceiver of the reproduction. Benjamin also understands this change in the light of the new 'masses', which were coming into existence in the 19th century because of industrialization and urbanization. If I continue to pursue the analogy between the original painting and 'natural presence' I may understand the effect of 'mediated presence' as the reproduction of the original painting. Natural presence loses its aura and its tradition, its historical context, because of its mediation by technology but it has acquired new meaning because of the fact that it can acquire new meaning in the actual situation of the perceiver of the mediated presence, Benjamin might have argued in 2006. Benjamin does analyse in 1935 what happens to the actor in a film who is captured by the camera. Even though the entire actor is represented, his aura cannot be represented, since that only exists in the here and now. Benjamin assumes that the machine defines the audience's attitude towards the filmed actor: it tests. In the editing, all the fragments come together and offer a new reality that was not perceivable before. That is why film is so attractive, according to Benjamin.

Seventy years of media history later Benjamin's words have to be contextualized in his time. Nevertheless some of his insights do resonate with experiences with mediated presence that people have today. The partial perception in mediated presence is a given today, but people are used to it and have found their ways to deal with it, as I will discuss in the next section. The partial perception of another person - be it a loved person or a complete stranger - in mediated presence also makes the Internet, for example, very attractive for many people. And sometimes a phone conversation can solve issues between people that a meeting In Real Life could not. Apparently, people sometimes like to communicate through just one channel so to speak, instead of having to use all senses and cognitive and emotional structures that are addressed in a real meeting.

Is there an aura that we bear that can be produced or reproduced via technology? Is our attitude towards the mediated presence of other people different than towards the real presence of a person? Do we as actors in these media change our behaviour towards each other because we know we are mediated? Do we get used to media in such a way that the 'surgical' vision that technology facilitates actually fascinates us more than 'natural presence' as we know it? And can we understand communication that is facilitated by technology only outside tradition or does it create a tradition of its own? To these questions there is no clear answer possible for now, therefore more generations of people need to grow up with these media. But we are also designing the communication environment for future generations. Therefore the question is whether we want there to be an aura of natural presence that is 'sacred'? Because I have taken the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a reference point for this study, I take the position that any human being has human dignity, which has to be respected and defended. How human dignity survives in an era of information and communication technologies is one of the driving issues behind this study.