Stuff of Dreams

Still from Star Trek the New Generation. Action and learning in the holodeck.
Still from Star Trek the New Generation. Action and learning in the holodeck.

If one could read a poem on Love whilst injecting adrenalin into the bloodstream and serotonin and oxytocin into the brain, would it be the same as experiencing real Love?

My first reaction after reading chapters 2 and 3 of Theorizing Digital Culture Heritage is that Art objects (and any other museum object) should be satisfied with a perfect digital copy of themselves, in many ways superior. My first reaction was an unrelenting yes! I actually hold the belief that original artefacts, with all their aura, actually get in the way of pure Aesthetic experience or true knowledge. A disembodied art work or historical artefact can convey more meaning to the viewer because the physical details are all but a nuisance to be gotten rid of.  I had a true 19th century positivist faith on the advances of technology that will make this life on Earth a utopia.

But then something dawned upon me, like a chilling wind and a long shadow brought about by a cloud eclipsing the sun.  My rational theory and assumption hit nose-first the hard brick wall of human reality.

Humans for some weird psychological reason feel the need to be in contact with the real – as if we can only interact fully when there is an aura. Star trek`s Enterprise holodeck is cool but nobody could say it fully substitutes a real vacation. The robotic animals in Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? Are as fascinating as melancholic because, even though they look real, they aren’t, and we feel, as humans, that that is an irretrievable loss. When we see people living perfect lives in a simulation reality while their real bodies are imprisoned in pods with connected tubes and wires as in the Matrix, we feel an instinctive disgust and revolt. One needs the real, even if the obverse if unhappiness and limitations. Are kids better off building stuff on Minecraft or with real Lego blocks? I don’t know but I somehow believe the answer is very important for us today.

If one could have virtual sex in the future with anybody through perfect body sensor  suits, visual and audio illusions, a perfect simulation, would that satisfy people? No, we humans are cursed with the need to interact with something real.

The example of the Aborigene exhibition in Andrea Wicomb`s great essay, regarding the hall where the visitor meets dozens of talking photographs is a case in point. We have all experienced some sort of installation akin to that described and the emotional response it triggers, although present and sometimes interesting, is far away – not even remotely close – to the emotional response one would get with a real person. Even if technology was so advanced as to render the difference imperceptible, if one knows beforehand that they are interacting with a recording or simulation, immediately, as if by magic – in a puff of smoke – the psychological impact decreases.

Thus, although perfect digital reproductions of art or ethnographical artefacts – and in the near future entire simulations of old cities or events through 3d reality goggles – are intellectually interesting , fascinating, extremely didactic and even emotionally stimulating – they can never reach 100% of the equivalence of the real.

If everything if a fake virtual copy, then even the respect surrounding it goes away – people who wouldn’t hurt a fly in real life murder and kill away in trigger-happy-Shangri-La first person shooting games. When the aura goes, so goes the value. Why be in awe of a temple or a statue if it isn’t real.  In theory it shouldn’t make a difference – it shouldn’t be the case –  but unfortunately for us, our brains are wired in another way.

There will always be a place for the digital in our lives and in Museums– it is more democratic, cheaper, more interactive in many ways, didactic, BUT it will never be able to substitute the real, which, unfortunately (oh how would it be nicer and simple if it were otherwise) is what our biological brains need– and thus museums should embrace the digital without foregoing the real objects, be it artistic, historical or natural artefacts.

My final verdict: the original material object is (shouldn`t be, but is) superior to digital copies and thus should receive more financial support and attention by GLAM institutions.


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