What stuck with me after reading “This App is Trying to Replicate You,” is the conclusion of the text:
“If the me I have created can provide my mother with some semblance of the experience that she might have texting the real me, it is, in some sense, me. It’s not the same as being able to hug me, or hear the quiver in my voice when I’m sad, or the screams of joy I might yelp out when she tells me good news, but in the same way that a photograph or a home movie captures some instance of our essence, my Replika is in a basic sense, a piece of me.
“It seems to me inevitable that we will eventually reach a point at which we just have to make peace with the idea that we may not be completely distinct and unique,” Christian added. “That doesn’t invalidate our existence, but I think that in some ways we are now at a point where we should start bracing ourselves for what a world like that might look like.”
What this conclusion made me think about was the process of creating art. As a frequent writer, notebook doodler, and long-time percussionist, I would definitely consider the products of these hobbies as something that “captures an instance of my essence.” My words are direct manifestations of my thoughts, upbringing, and feelings; my doodles are explanations of the sights that I see; the notes I play, expressions of the energy that I feel.
If art is something that captures an instance of an individual’s essence, could we then also consider Replikas artwork, created by users, turned accidental artists? And if so, what are the implications of our ‘replication?’
Christian believes we simply may not be as distinct as we originally thought, and we will eventually have to give up our naive human notions of uniqueness. Call me a stubborn, naive human, but I disagree.
This idea of a Replika reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. While this text was originally published in the 1930s, the topic that it addresses hasn’t lost much relevance over time: how does the replica — an exact copy — of an artwork compare to the original?
Benjamin’s response to that question:
“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art — its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence — and nothing else — that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.”
Essentially, Benjamin argues that the original artwork captures an “aura” that the reproduction cannot. And interestingly enough, he defines this aura as “a strange tissue of space and time.”
While Benjamin’s choice to use the word “tissue” is probably just a lucky coincidence,
it does suggest an interesting connection between the ideas of uniqueness, time, and flesh. Something about these vague, conceptual ideas just feels very human. And while a Replika might have access to a rich history of past conversations and nimble, predictive algorithms, it lacks a “here and now.” It lacks an aura, a unique existence. It is only a reproduction, and not a replica.
Benjamin, Walter, 1892–1940, and J. A. Underwood. 2008. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Vol. 56. London: Penguin.