What makes something real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.
It’s easy to forget that the very idea of digital expression involves a trade-off with metaphysical overtones. A physical oil painting cannot convey an image created in another medium; it is impossible to make an oil painting look just like an ink drawing, for instance, or vice versa. But a digital image of sufficient resolution can capture any kind of perceivable image— or at least that’s how you’ll think of it if you believe in bits too much.
Of course, it isn’t really so. A digital image of an oil painting is forever a representation, not a real thing. A real painting is a bottomless mystery, like any other real thing. An oil painting changes with time; cracks appear on its face. It has texture, odor, and a sense of presence and history.
Another way to think about it is to recognize that there is no such thing as a digital object that isn’t specialized. Digital representations can be very good, but you can never foresee all the ways a representation might need to be used. For instance, you could define a new MIDIlike standard for representing oil paintings that includes odors, cracks, and so on, but it will always turn out that you forgot something, like the weight or the tautness of the canvas.
The definition of a digital object is based on assumptions of what aspects of it will turn out to be important. It will be a flat, mute nothing if you ask something of it that exceeds those expectations. If you didn’t specify the weight of a digital painting in the original definition, it isn’t just weightless, it is less than weightless.
A physical object, on the other hand, will be fully rich and full real whatever you do to it. It will respond to any experiment a scientist can conceive. What makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.
A digital image, or any other kind of digital fragment, is a useful compromise. It captures a certain limited measurement of reality within a standardized system that removes any of the original source’s unique qualities. No digital image is really distinct from any other; they can be morphed and mashed up.
That doesn’t mean that digital culture is doomed to be anemic. It just means that digital media have to be used with special caution.