One of the issues I’m grappling with on my in-development Wired story is how we’ll need to redefine the notion of authenticity in the era of ubiquitous 3D printing. If I can make a perfect copy of any object without leaving the comfort of my home, does the original lose its aura of value?
That’s a question that folks in New Ireland are now confronting, as they ponder whether to accept 3D copies of ceremonial masks that German colonialists swiped in the 19th century. Before I read the piece, I could only consider the German offer a slap in the face—why shouldn’t they be the ones left with the copies, since they only obtained the originals through theft? But two current New Ireland residents do excellent jobs of playing the devil’s advocates in the piece:
“I realise that these artefacts are stored in special places and special care,” says Adam Kaminiel, a modern Nalik carver. “I don’t think we have that special place and special care at the moment.”
Chief of the New Ireland clan, Martin Kombeng adds that matters could get complicated if the masks were repatriated.
“Maybe I think differently, but I prefer to leave the masks as they are because once they are back, many people will try to claim them.”
It is Kaminiel’s argument that I find most interesting, because he is essentially saying that he would prefer that the originals be preserved for the long-run rather than have them return and deteriorate. Even if the copy and the original are indistinguishable from one another, he feels that the mask created by his ancestors has intrinsic value separate from its appearance. I have to wonder if this is a viewpoint that will vanish over the next few generations, as 3D printing entirely blurs the line between fake and real. The psychological heft of objects may no longer be in who created them, but in purely in how they are used.