The Virtualization of Stuff: The Post-Stuff World

by Robin Harris on Thursday, 11 May, 2006

From the Wall Street Journal comes this comment about the impact of cheap digital storage on the physical world.

The Post-Stuff World: We invented records, books, newspapers and cash to hold those “idea” nouns — music, writing, news and value — and we larded up our homes with these media and wrote on small watermarked pieces of paper when we owed people money. We knew we owned things because we could touch them and give them to people for Christmas. Now, we have grown comfortable owning music and video that exists only as bytes on a hard drive. Debit cards and electronic bill paying are rapidly replacing paper checks. It will take a generation or more, sure, but even physical books may be destined for extinction in our increasingly stuff-free, wind-swept family rooms. As for the holidays: Gift certificates or cash remain gauche, but gift cards — well, those are ok.

While I like the use of the word virtualization I’m reminded that Buckminster Fuller used to talk about the ephemeralization of the physical, the logical outcome of “doing more with less”. Culturally we are still caught up in the physical embodiment of our media, from the ten commandment’s archetypal stone tablets to the soothing solidity of a book-lined wall. Perhaps those models will give way to something as sleek and magical as the holographic computer interfaces of Minority Report.

Right now, I think I’ll turn off iTunes and finish watching my new DVD.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom Foremski May 16, 2006 at 10:30 am

I used to believe that I wanted to touch my stuff, have it around me, and now, I’m getting more and more comfortable getting rid of all that stuff, and visual clutter. I hate my CDs, hundreds of them now stuck in boxes and I hate paying for the space they take up. I use Yahoo Music now – $5 per month and I can access almost every CD I own and a gazillion others I don’t. I still like my books, but I’m tending more to the large visual “coffee” table type, very high resolution portable media 🙂

Robin Harris May 16, 2006 at 1:46 pm

I’ve noticed my media consumption patterns have changed since college when I read three daily papers in addition to a healthy load of reading. I’ve gotten rid of many boxes of books in the last few years, just as I did with vinyl albums 10 years ago.

If there is one constant in mass human behavior, it is info-philia, our movement towards information/stimulation rich environments. Broadband has changed the economics of info-philia and our choices reflect that change.

Tom Foremski May 30, 2006 at 8:49 am

I like that term info-philia and that is why we now have attention spans so short, that an MTV attention span is downright geological in its time span 🙂

Also, this is why our kids are getting so smart, they are exposed to a hundred flash cards a minute…

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