The Technium

The Rise and Fall of the Copy

[Translations: Japanese]

When gramophone recording equipment reached the Indonesian archipelago in the 1900s, the gamelan orchestras being recorded by musicologists like John B. Smoot were perplexed. Locally popular tunes circulated in the villages at a half-life of a few weeks. Why copy a performance? Why would anyone want to listen to a stale rendition of a now obsolete piece when it was so easy to get fresh music? To get an idea their puzzlement, just imagine aliens arriving in your home town. They whip open a lacquered wooden box that you crank while you eat a sumptuous meal. By cranking the box the next day, you can replay the ephemeral tastes of that one meal again. Instead of enjoying a new meal, they suggest you replay the old one over and over again.


As puzzled as the gamelan players were, they’d be even more amazed now. With digital boxes we can replay our experiences anywhere, anytime (while jogging, in an elevator, while sleeping). And we can share our copies to let our neighbors and friends replay them. Hillel Schwartz, author of The Culture of the Copy notes laconically, “We admire the unique, then we reproduce it.”


The act of recording music changed music. As phonographs spread throughout the world a hundred years ago, they shifted folk tunes toward music that worked well when repeated. Recorded music became shorter, more melodic, and more precise. The first commercial recording cylinders in the 1890s could hold no more than 2 minutes of music, Decades later recording equipment still could contain no more than four and a half minutes. Musicians truncated old works to fit, and created new music abbreviated to adapt to the phonograph. Because the first sound recordings were created by unamplified vibrations of the music itself, recording de-emphasized the loud sounds of singers, and emphasized quiet instruments. Musicologist Timothy Day notes that once pianists began recording they began doing something they had never done before, they tried to “distinguish carefully between every quaver and semiquaver – eight-note and sixteenth-note – throughout the piece.”

Technology lowered the distance between an ear and music. Prior to the recording age a serious music fan, say a budding composer, would be lucky to hear a favorite symphony more than once in his life. Only if he lived in a city with a symphony that happened to feature that composition by that composer would he get to hear the piece. It would ordinarily be a long time before that piece was played again within his hearing.

We now live in a time when most music is recorded music, and increasingly, any music we desire can be heard anywhere and anytime There is no music made today that has not be shaped by character of recording and duplication. When Frederick Gaisberg arrived in Calcutta, India in 1902, barely a decade after the phonograph was invented, he found that Indian musicians were already learning to imitate recorded music, and lamented that there “was no traditional music left to record.”

It wasn’t just recording that altered music, but also the technology of replaying the copy. As listening and playback devices developed, the act of hearing music transformed from a group experience found in a temple, church, home gathering, or auditorium, to an individual experience sheltered in a car, a bed room, or earphone silence. Personal technology allowed music to be more personally felt. As the mechanical speaker approaches closer to the ear, ownership swells. The wrap-around Walkman made your favorite style of music seem intimately yours alone. In the near future elfin-sized ear plugs, or music transmitted along your bones, or someday implanted in your ear all promise music only you can ever hear, “you music.”

Daniel Boorstin, America’s most technologically astute historian, noted that the vague experience we call life has been divided by the technologies of reproduction, starting with the camera, phonograph and telephone, into a series of discreet consumable units. “The sense that each of life’s moments was unique and irrecoverable gave way to the idea of recording and replaying them.” We are headed this way with email. There is some child alive today who in 70 years or so will have their entire life — the sum total of all its particular transactions in pictures, thoughts, correspondence, phone conversations – all saved on a server, and available for copying to grandchildren.

In the Advent of the Copy the first phase is perfection. Music rapidly adapted to the strictures of recording. The reproduction was made exact, while the copy was multiplied vigorously, creating its own reality. As the technologies of reproduction bloomed in the last century, consumerism bloomed. What consumers consumed were exact copies.

The total numbers are overwhelming. In one year, in the US, 2.5 billion copies of books were sold. Fifteen trillion (yes, trillion!) pages copied on paper. 3.5 billion CDs and cassette albums were stamped out (up from 27 million in 1909). In the material world, 102 billion nearly identical aluminum cans are churned out. Not to mention, billions served at McDonalds. Copies are cheap.

But duplication and transmission of musical copies is no longer cheap. It’s free, courtesy of perfect online duplication and infinite online transmission. Online duplication is rampant, and its scale is awesome. Despite efforts to stamp it out, file sharing continues. One million copies of the file sharing software LimeWire were copied by Macintosh fans of music sharing in just the one week of January, 2002. In this new online world, anything that can be copied will be copied for free.

But the moment something becomes free and ubiquitous, it flips. When night-time electrical lighting was new, it was the poor who burnt common candles. When electricity became ubiquitous and practically free, light bulbs were cheapened, and candles at dinner became a sign of luxury.


In this supersaturated digital online universe of infinite duplication, the axis of value has flipped. In the industrial age copies often were more valuable than the original (who wanted the “original” prototype refrigerator the one in your kitchen was based on?).

Now, in a brave new world of abundant and free copies, copies are devalued, and finally dethroned. The only things truly valuable are those which cannot be copied. The remaining decades in this century will be a relentless search for all that is not-copyable, for the varieties of everything except copies. The Copy is dead. Long live the Non-copy!

  • Dra

    I’d like to point out something from that first paragraph. We have a magical box that spills out the same meal time and time and time and time again.

    It’s name is the microwave TV dinner. I’ve bought the exact same meal, in stores across the country, the flavor, the sauce, the portion, the preparation have all been so close to the same the difference isn’t worth mentioning.

    So we are the aliens. Our mass production factories and exact copies of the same laptop, mp3 player, ebook reader, microwave oven, rice cooker and microwave oven have made most everything we consume, even food, for much of the population, the exact same.

    I sit here on a massively produced laptop, *asus eeepc* listening to music from a common brand of memory card, from a “best of” album. I was reading a book that proclaims it was on the “top seller list for two weeks” earlier today. At least it wasn’t from a TV celebrity book club. I ate a microwave dinner that I’ve had at least once a week for the last month.

    And while I diverge from the norm far more than most, I still prefer my books printed in paper, and I yearn for a plot device I haven’t seen before, I enjoy a divergent musical collection…The sameness is a part of my every day life.

    …pardon the wall of text.

  • “Now, in a brave new world of abundant and free copies, copies are devalued, and finally dethroned. The only things truly valuable are those which cannot be copied. The remaining decades in this century will be a relentless search for all that is not-copyable, for the varieties of everything except copies. The Copy is dead. Long live the Non-copy!”

    I like this idea. It makes me consider derivatives – “remix culture” – in a new way. Creative Commons licenses that allow derivative works are extremely valuable to me, because you can eventually get a family tree from one song, article, movie, etc. These can be copied, but when you can record, remix, and reproduce with even the cheapest computer and software, you’ll see more new works. They’ll have elements of old works in them, but they’re still unique.

    Add to that the brand new stuff that no one’s copied or remixed yet, and you have a wealth of fresh material.

  • There’s a great bit in Steve Grand’s book on designing alife (‘Creation’) that talks about the difference between a virtual world and the ‘real’ world in terms of thermodynamics.

    In the real world of atoms, you can’t easily copy things, but you can move things around. It’s this energy barrier that evolution pushes against when reshuffling its resources amongst the replicating competitors: there is only a limited (local) number of atoms.

    He found that in a virtual world, such as might support alife of the genetic algorithm type, there was a very different story. With information, you can copy it perfectly and with hardly any effort, but you can’t actually move it around – only make copies.

    To make his Creatures evolve in a ‘lifelike’ way, therefore, and pit each other against some kind of barrier where information was not infinite (as copying makes it), he had to add an artificial thermodynamic constraint to their world to make it more like ours. He had to limit the number of bits in the virtual world to simulate the ‘identity’ of atoms.

    It might not take long for our world to run out of bit-representations, especially considering that relationships between entities take up bits too, and their numbers escalate exponentially faster than the number of entities we create. We’re also approaching molecular representation of bits, further than which it might not be possible to go without turning up some neat quantum holographic compression algorithm…

    So, if we start to run into information storage limitations, what kind of remodelling will the information we want to save undergo? It wil all be competing for space in the world – in our culture – in the same way that ideas and thoughts compete for spaces in our brains. As the brain generates the mind, might this be what’s needed for vast stored arrays of information to evolve into something that’s not really in our individual grasp anymore?

    Or is that still the reserve of Japanime?

  • watson

    I’m having trouble reading this on my mobile phone (Nokia N97) ? Any clues?