The joy of the physical in a virtual world

It's easy to think in terms of physical goods like CDs and books being supplanted by their virtual successors.

The relationship between physical and digital goods is often construed as one of replacement. MP3 files have replaced CDs. eBooks are eroding the need for physical books. That’s a view I often cleave to, if only because I’m pretty lousy at organising physical goods, but pretty good at keeping digital ones in order. I haven’t bought a physical CD in years, and I have better access to my music as a result. I’d struggle to find any negative I shot in my couple of decades using film,  but I can lay my hands on, say, my photos from NEXT Service Design in minutes, if not seconds.

Like most such statements, that idea of replacement is too simplistic. For one thing, there’s 3D Printing – a big topic at last year’s NEXT conference. That’s the digital taking physical form again and exploring the possibilities of highly-customised physical objects.

Andrew Missingham explored another relationship between the physical and the digital in a recent blog post:

Today we are used to seeing models, renders, or thumbnails on screen. I think an important rubicon is crossed when something is in front of you, that you can touch and feel.

One view of why physical stuff is important is held within a field of activity called “service design“. You think of the otherwise invisible hotel maid who has cleaned your room when you see the fold in the toilet paper roll, or the chocolate on your pillow. When your service is intangible (such as a design or online business), it’s even more important to manifest your unseeable service with physical objects.

In his case, this relationship was made manifest by some referral cards provided to him by his web host. He didn’t use a single one of them – they say under his computer monitor – but they did prompt him to actually tell people about the service, and get referrals. The mere presence of physical goods led to a digital sale.

Andrew goes on to suggest that we need to get our soft, digital hands dirty:

So if you’re a strategist, planner or researcher, try getting your hands dirty and by not just theorising, but designing then making something that you can put in front of your clients or their customers. An object. A real thing. Believe me, you’ll learn more from this than from the most beautifully rendered Keynote deck or from a thousand pages of print.

For all the joy of the digital realm, we are still physical creatures, and we need to give more thought to the inter-relationship of the physical and the digital. We tend to reflexively assume that one thing replaces another – but that’s rarely true. Film did not kill off the theatre – but it changed it. The digital economy doesn’t kill off the physical one – but it will change it.