Aura in the Digital Realm

In a recent class entitled Transformations In Digital Humanities, we discussed the notion of aura as it relates to an object, and how the individual’s perception of the aura can affect its value.  We then discussed the notion of digital auras, and more specifically, if digital objects have an aura. We also discussed if that aura is lost once the object moves from the analogue to the digital (or if the object is born digital, if it has an aura to begin with). This got me thinking about the notion of auras in general and what impact, if any, the digital realm has on an object’s aura.

Defining Aura

First, let’s start by defining what exactly an aura is when it relates to an object (in this case, we are dealing specifically with objects in the Arts & Humanities realm). The Free Dictionary defines aura as “a distinctive but intangible quality that seems to surround a person or thing; atmosphere”. In his book, Presence of Play, Power takes this definition a bit further by describing aura (or “auratic presence”) as the presence an object has that is beyond what the object’s physical appearance might suggest (p. 47). The easiest way to describe aura in my mind is that feeling one gets from looking at a favorite painting.  What feelings are evoked by Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Starry Night? If you’ve seen the original, how were those feelings changed? Was there an air of magnitude about the object? Did it change your sense of the object? If you answered yes, then you understand aura.  It’s that presence certain objects have that draw you to them. But where does it come from?

Why Aura?

As Walter Benjamin states in his article, Aura stems directly from the originality of the piece: “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin). I feel, however, that Benjamin doesn’t get quite to the core of the matter of why we derive aura from presence which is, quite simply, the collective human thought that “original = better”. Let us consider a work of art. It has become quite commonplace to understand that the original Mona Lisa is near-priceless, but a reproduction of the Mona Lisa has vastly diminished value. But why? Is it because we associate the original with the great Leonardo da Vinci and since he no longer lives, his original creations are thus worth more than reproductions? This only leads to further questions in my mind. If one can take a piece of art and reproduce it exactly, brush stroke for brush stroke, so that it resembles the original down to the finest detail, why is the original any more valuable than the reproduction? What is it about “originality” that causes us as a society to assign so much value?

Money & Fame

I will probably ruffle quite a few feathers with this statement, but I believe the answer to the above question, like so many things, boils down to a single commonality: money. By assigning mystique (or in this case “auratic presence”) to an item, you place value on the item. It is different. It is unique. Therefore, it must be valuable. And the higher the value, the greater the monetary gain should the item be sold. And even if money isn’t the currency in question, the value will be dispensed in that other great currency, fame. The artist or object in question gains notoriety and thus, in the case of the artist, the value of future objects increases. In the case of the object itself, as notoriety increases, value becomes an expression of time, whereby the more time that passes, the greater the value increases until it eventually plateaus.

But does the digitisation or mass reproduction of an object actually detract from the value? Furzsi certainly doesn’t seem to think so. In Furzsi’s article, the author states, “Instead of destroying the cult status of artworks then, such printed fabrics reinforced the aura of the artist genius and played an important role in familiarising a wide audience with the modernist canon”. One could extrapolate from Furzsi’s argument, then, that mass reproduction of these prints raised the auratic presence and thus the value of the object by making it more readily available. And therein lies the crux of my argument.

Availing the ‘Common Folk’

It is my belief that digitisation of an object does not diminish the analogue object’s auratic presence, nor does the digital object lack aura. In fact, it is quite the opposite. As the internet continues to grow and connect the world, those who might not otherwise have access to Arts & Humanities analogue objects due to a lack of means for travel or opportunity can experience these objects in a digital format. The digital object can still evoke the same sense of wonder or mystery. After all, I’ve never seen the original work of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, yet it is still one of my favourite paintings and evokes a strong feeling of connection to the subject matter. And by exposing a wider audience to the object or artist via the digital medium, the auratic presence of the analogue increases as well due to the increase in notoriety. It all ties back together.

Dr. Power also contends that aura emanates not just from the object itself but also from the unexpected encounter with the object and the emotions said encounter evokes (p. 48). Here again, the digitisation of the object lends itself to my supposition that by increasing the dissemination of the object to a wider audience, the aura of the object is increased as more individuals experience the object through unexpected digital encounters (via internet searches, online galleries, etc).

Unintended Consequence

The digitisation of objects has also had some unintended, yet beneficial, consequences. In his journal article, Rodríguez-Ferrándiz discusses the case of Edward Munch’s The Scream. The painting was damaged during its theft and recovery, and the curators were able to use the vast collection of reproductions of the work to assist in their restoration of the object. Thus, the auratic presence of the object, which could have suffered irreparable harm as a result of the damage to the painting, was preserved directly as a result of the mass production and digitisation of the object (p. 399).  Furthermore, had the object not been digitised and mass produced, the curators may never have been able to restore the painting, and the aura along with the value of the object could have been greatly reduced.


While I won’t go so far as to say that an analogue object retains an aura that can be matched by a digital representation (after all, seeing the Book of Kells in physical form does evoke something that the digital version doesn’t quite capture), I will emphatically state that digitisation of an object in no way shreds the auratic presence, but rather adds to the aura of the analogue object. In addition, the digital object itself retains a sense of aura through the “unexpected encounter” of the object (thus allowing objects that are born digital to possess aura as well). Aura is entirely intrinsic and subjective characteristic that is unique to the individual experience yet also is built upon by the collective unconscious. As we move evermore into the the digital age, aura will continually be built upon through both the analogue and the digital experience.


Looking at the Book

When I first applied to the Digital Humanities programme at Maynooth University, I was faced with a bit of a conundrum. Up to the point of my application, I had focused my research interests in the area of Anthropology, and I was most interested in how various cultures interacted with computer systems. Specifically, I wanted to explore what UI paradigms could be leveraged or created to overcome some of those culture boundaries that can often make the absorption of data difficult.  All of this was the result of countless nights of pondering UI interactions while completing my Masters thesis and the 2  years of subsequent work and personal study between the completion of my Masters and the inception of my PhD.

Flash forward to February of 2014 when I stumbled upon the Digital Arts & Humanities programme at Maynooth University.  As I read about the programme, I became incredibly excited.  This was exactly what I had been looking for! The notion of taking something analogue like history and presenting it in an online format was absolutely fascinating to me, but I was unsure how to tweak my research proposal, which had been written from an anthropological point of view, to work within the realm of Digital Humanities.  Furthermore, while cross-cultural barriers certainly exist in the consumption of the humanities information, was that a serious underlying problem to the field? Or was there something else for me to explore?  And that’s when inspiration hit me.  And it came in the form … of a book.

All in a Book

Go onto any online catalogue and find information that was originally stored in a book (or something electronic that mimicks a book such as an online journal). Over and over, you will see the same implementation of the UI for consumption – something called “the book metaphor”. In Interactive Design, a “metaphor” is known as a particular UI mechanism or paradigm that attempts to create a universal interaction that draws specific inspiration from some kind of interaction the user is already familiar with (see Wikipedia’s article entitled ‘Interface Metaphor‘ for more information). In this case, users are familiar with how to read a book (the turning of pages, the flow of data from top to bottom, left to right, etc), so the easiest implementation of this type of UI phenomenon is “the book metaphor”. And it is widely accepted and used. But just because something is widely accepted doesn’t mean its the best implementation.

Out of the Book

Let’s face it, we live in the digital age. More and more often, we turn to the internet for our information needs. Libraries are being used differently now. Instead of pulling books from shelves, users are leveraging the study space and pulling online copies of books to comb through. And hobbyist researchers troll Google looking for information on whatever subject happens to strike their fancy at the time. And we’ve become so accustomed to looking for information by reading text upon text that we’ve simply translated this metaphor from the analogue to the digital realm. But given the rate at which technology is growing, is this still the right path to take? That’s what I’m looking to explore in my dissertation. How do we get out of the book? What new ways can we visualise data to consume it? And for those cases that do involve combing through text, how can we make the UI interaction different or more efficient, so it moves beyond reading a book on a computer screen? Thus is the foundation for a large portion of my dissertation.

As I progress through my research, I’ll be exploring other topics as well (especially in the realm of data visualisations and common UI problems inherent in academic systems). And as I go, I’ll be blogging about my journey, so feel free to tune in and comment on what you see. I’ll do my best to keep you up to date on my progress and share with you this journey as I move out of the book and into the digital.