Perfect Copies Produce Diversity

The threat of digital copying is not that it produces perfect duplicates, but that it produces heterogeneous diversity. It is not a sequel to the press, but a divergence from it.

That is one of the notes I made while reading Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy1, in response to this claim:

. . . homogeneity is quite incompatible with electronic culture. We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century.

(Of course, when he talks about “electronic culture” he is talking about television and radio, not DVDs and the Internet2.)

It is not obvious that this should be the impact of digital media. The printing press supplanted handwritten manuscripts, which were anything but uniform. In the middle ages, for example, textbooks were class notes taken by students. But printed books are homogeneous: McLuhan calls them the first mass-produced commodities, and argues that the influence of their uniformity extended throughout society. Why would digital media — with its perfect copies — be any different?

But they are. The uniform sequence of songs on an album gives way to the random selection of the iPod Shuffle. We rip mix and burn. Although much of this is because of the affordability and ease-of-use of the tools, my point is about the inherent perfection of digital copies.

An analog copy is always inferior to a more perfect — hence more authoritative — original. Photographs of a painting increase the value of the original, while remaining relatively worthless themselves. The quality and value of a master is greater than of any subsequent derivative work, even more than distributed copies of that derivative. Because analog is imperfect, the goal of duplication is fidelity, and the result is hierarchy and uniformity. Even the echo of feudalism in the words — fidelity, master — reveals the bias.

Digital technology is different: every copy is a master because every copy is perfect. Derivative works are at no disadvantage. A technology which allows perfect uniformity instead promotes endless experimentation and innovation3.

This diversity, of course, is one of the targets of schemes from the broadcast flag to copyright and DRM. If we accept their control, we must also accept the passive uniformity that goes with them.


1 Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1962, p. 165.

2 McLuhan goes into more detail about electric media in Understanding Media, which I have not yet read.

3 Imagine if software were analog: Microsoft’s greatest treasure would be the master copy of Windows; open source would be a hopeless disaster.