Before I begin this post, I want to lay a little ground work to show where I am coming from. I have no degree in any *”ology” and these ramblings reflect only my own musings. I am an avid futurist and technologist, in particular, web technologies. I am a believer in its ability to change the future in major ways, largely for the good, as it has already done over and over.

You always know when things are changing because people are talking about that which is in flux. And we are talking now more than ever about technology, progress and in particular the web and how it integrating with our lives.

I found myself happy to hear of schools introducing the iPad to classrooms replacing heavy, expensive text books. More information on this can be found here at ipadinschools. I still think that this is a wonderful change, but it got me thinking about where we may be heading.

What will happen to the physical things? The books, CDs, photographs, newspapers etc. And in the process of replacing them, what is it that we risk losing?

Does a physical photograph mean more, and have more value than its digital counterpart? Does a physical book have more value than a book downloaded to your tablet? I think for the large part the answer is a resounding no, but occasionally it is a yes.

My family has boxes full of photographs and attics full of “stuff”, very few of these items have any real meaning other than to map out the past as a timeline represented as things. This can be achieved far better in the digital realm; and in my opinion, the digital realm provides more relevance and connection, particularly in a spatial/temporal sense.

But there is something to be said about having and holding something which has had time and craft put into it through purely physical interaction. A physical object can create the sense of a physical connection with the maker of the object. When I hold a scrapbook, made by my partner or hold a drawing done by my daughter, I know that they have held, touched and created this object and that means something; and I have yet to feel that “something” from their digital counterparts. So perhaps the first thing lost is the tactile properties of an actual object. Feeling and touching that shared object adds a level to the shared experience, as stated, the giver/sharer has also touched the object. Perhaps other elements lost are rarity and uniqueness. These elements add a great deal of value to an object, but in the digital realm, there is almost nothing which cannot be easily reproduced, either by copying it to many places or by replicating it through some digital tool. There is no risk of loss of something important with these digital objects. Almost all of us have some form of back up of our important information.

Of course, the information contained and shared is more important than how we choose to share it. Yet I do worry that, even though a piece of information shared is clearly important, we treat it with less reverence purely because of the sheer amount of information being shared with us at any one point in time. This may well be due to our lack of experience in dealing with this volume of information, and maybe it something we will become much better at over time.

However an interesting question and problem is raised: if we accept we are losing something, how do we create and share something of worth and value in a digital format? How can we impart and understand the time and effort expended to create that which is being shared? I’m not sure whether these questions are truly important, but they matter to me and I hope to some of you too.

  6 Responses to “Are we racing away from the physical too quickly?”

  1. 1) The sharing of value will still be there in the digital age, as I once made a power point presentation for a friend it was more than equal if not better than the poster I made her. Value will be present no matter what the medium, as long as we associate sentimentality with it. ….This value comes purely from the associated emotions with maker and our emotion for maker.

    2) There is another kind of value. This value comes from the experience of the object, digital or not….I personally find digital things loathsome creature as I feel they absorb my time and do not provide value equal to it’s worth. Ultimately it will come down to how each individual evaluates their relationship with digital media or other object … Does the smell, feel and content of a book add to your experience? And if it does, does it make it more valuable for you or less?

    3) I also find it disconcerting that ipads are added to school. There are different ways we learn, but ultimately it come down to the senses….visual learners, practical learners (hands), audio learners…but it does not end there as children we use taste and smell to learn too …. A child that becomes ‘digtilised’ in their learning becomes stunted …yes it can potentially cater for all ways of learning but only in a particular ways…examine WALL-E (I think this is the right film…firm in which humans stop walking etc)….I fundamentally question if this is survival of the fittest or a perfect strategy for making the human race extinct…Sometimes our methods of evolving mean we are less likely to survive in the future.

    4) Humans have an innate desire to be associated with their work / experiences. Digital experiences don’t fully tap into this desire. Consequently, we will always be less fulfilled by an digital experience. Bit like having sex with a condom I imagine.

    • I think there is clearly value in the physical. Don’t think that will completely go away either. But on the information & media front we definitely are. It is an unstoppable train. Our devices are more like bookshelves than books. They lack focus, somewhat. I’m still pro iPad in schools. Still haven’t made my mind up on this whole subject though, which is partly the reason for the post.

    • I think there are degrees of separation at work too. A book brings one degree of separation from the source of the information, the author, and I believe digital, screen dependant devices can bring another degree of separation. Making you feel less connected with the individual but also with the information. There really are a lot of forces at work.

  2. I believe that value in a product is taken from how much effort the receiver perceives was spent on creating the object. When we are given something into our hands it is easier for us to imagine that a long time was spent on it, whereas if the item is a digital concept we feel like it did not take much effort at all (I can have a concept on my own right now, it doesn’t even hurt).

    To highlight the point I’m trying to make: if I was to receive a long carefully written email from an old friend, which was personalised and truly heart-felt, that would mean more to me than a brief physical letter from someone I don’t know asking me to exploit their latest special offers on 5lbs of pizza.

  3. I’ll probably write a blog post myself about this sort of thing, but a few brief comments:

    1. We will never move away from the physical, and I don’t think we will ever accept living only through computer I/O devices. Our five senses opens up a huge sensory real estate to populate with sense experiences and moving all objects to the digital realm would deprive humans of something very basic.

    2. The meaning of objects is rooted in how we encounter them in our world. Whether we encounter them in a physical or abstract setting and how those objects are used and interact with other objects. A physical letter will therefore always be qualitatively different to an email. Textual content may be equivalent, but form is very different and form affects how we think. The expense of paper and pens, the inability to edit, the preference amongst many for nice writing paper and fountain pens, the skill of writing in a decent hand, and the history of all representations of letters in literature and film, leads a person to produce different content than they would for emails, which are almost little more than content, and are editable, disposable and functional. Even between computers, the difference between OSs, such as Windows and Mac, make people think differently and do different things on computers. (Business minded v creative minded.) Therefore form is as important as content.

    3. I would posit that it is relatively rare for products to disappear from the market, except where their form is the same and they are supplanted quantitatively by successor products. DVDs were the same as VCDs, except higher capacity, and therefore VCDs could/can not survive. On the other hand, CDs did not supplant vinyl, because their forms are different, and people value something in vinyl that does not exist in a CD. Even though the CD was quantitatively superior in various key respects, the vinyl thrives still in a niche market. (And continues to thrive even as the CD is supplanted by non-physical digital formats.) Products of a fundamentally different form maintain a place in the market precisely because the ‘evolution’ of products is as much, if not more, Lamarckian as Darwinian: instead of only the strongest surviving (where strong is quantitive) the weakest also survive in smaller niches (because they are differentiated from the ‘strong’ by form). Lamarckianism is a type of evolution where acquired traits are inherited by successors and predicts an ever greater diffusion of products of every sort, rather than a strict line of obsolescence in products.

    4. Humans will not want to, or be encouraged to, spend most of their day on the web, no matter how unobtrusive the form of the web. Like television, there will be numerous dire predictions of children and adults being swamped by mindless drivel 24-7 but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Similar to the sensory real estate argument, we also have a temporal real estate making up our daily lives that needs populating, and I think that there is a maximum amount of time people are willing to spend interacting online. Lets call in X hours. As the amount of digital services continue to proliferate all they can do is compete for a shrinking share of X. At a certain point, it will be as profitable to go after people’s physical time as it is to go after people’s digital time.

    In summary, I don’t see a digital versus physical argument in general. I don’t think things are going to change fundamentally. I don’t see many of the things I enjoy now disappearing for good. I don’t think that the digital world is superior to the physical world or that it is going to change everything. I think it will be a larger component of an already fast moving world of services and distractions.

  4. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and all. But think of if you added some great pictures or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and video clips, this site could definitely be one of the most beneficial in its niche. Excellent blog!

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