Atomic balm

Is the worm turning? Are we tiring of fiddling with symbols on displays, watching the pixels flow? Are we beginning to yearn for stuff again? Are things the new thing? Genevieve Bell, a top Intel researcher, tells The Atlantic that she senses the answer is yes:

We’ve been in a decade of dematerialization, all the markers of identity. You and I, when we were younger, knew how to talk about ourselves, to ourselves and others, through physical stuff–music, the books on our shelves, photos. We’ve gone through a period where a lot of that content is dematerialized. It became virtual. You could send people playlists, but it’s not the same as having someone go through your record collection. It had a different sort of intimacy.

And it doesn’t surprise me that after 10 years of early-adoptive dematerialization, all the identity work and now the seduction of physical objects has come back in full force. Now it’s kind of a pendulum: we move between the virtual and the real a great deal. And we have historically–that’s hardly a new thing. I suspect that part of what we’re seeing with the Etsy maker and that whole spectrum is a kind of need for physical things because so much has become digital, and in fact, what’s being manifested in some of these places is really a reprise of physical stuff. Physicality has kind of come back.

How strong is the rematerialization countertrend? I don’t think we know yet. Probably less strong than Bell suggests, I’d guess. Still, it’s interesting to consider that, when it comes to the way we behave today, we don’t really know for sure what’s mere faddishness and what’s enduring. Sleep lightly, avatars.

6 thoughts on “Atomic balm

  1. scottbloggs

    Hmm. Not sure this is a trend as such. I think we’ve always liked our things. Hence Etsy, Amazon, eBay etc?

    Perhaps it’s just that the attention was on the pixels. And now, as we come to expect innovation in the digital, we want to draw attention into something more surprising. And the old being the new New is always an enticing idea.

    I think the underlying trend here is bringing the virtual and the real together. With recent developments Minecraft is an excellent emerging example of that. You’ve doubtless seen all the coverage but I brought it altogether and tried to draw out some of the implications here:

    Is the point that pixels and the real world will become far more interconnected? Perhaps in some places indistinguishable? What’s the tightest integration we know of between real and virtual? Google Maps?

    Maybe I should write a blog on this? I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts.

  2. Maureen

    I think people are looking for something in the physical environment to make them feel fulfilled, complete or known in someway. My feeling is that this is barking up the wrong tree. Where this feeling of being known and complete lies is in the mind, the perception, but that perception is clouded with what we think will make this happen. Letting go of what we think will fulfill us and following the inner compass is what will take us there. Letting go is no easy task. Trusting the inner compass is no easy task, but to me computers ain’t where it’s going to happen. It is serious introspection. There is a greater intelligence within if we can access it. That’s embracing a mystery that most people don’t want to consider or work at connecting with.

  3. Maureen

    Let’s hope we are not headed down the consumption path again. We live in a world of finite resources. Instead of 7 billion locusts consuming the earth, I hope the movement is in the direction of responsibility toward what we have left here and to care for the earth. Otherwise we are doomed.

  4. Henry Beer

    There is something to be said for materiality, in marketing at least.

    Sitting in a meeting in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I listened as two young marketing consultants discussed how best to promote a major new real estate development. One put forward his plan for developing a cool web site with downloadable PDF’s. While he was making his point, the other marketing person reached into her messenger bag and slowly revealed a brochure of formidable proportions. It was beautiful–perfect bound, high quality paper, beautiful images, compelling typography and printed on an actual printing press.

    The woman stated flatly that no one opens the scores of PDF’s they receive, let alone even remembering that they received it. “This,” she said as she brandished the gorgeous piece, ” stays on their real desktops, and sooner or later they’ll pick it up and read it.” She was right. The combination of design, imagery and the inescapable message of quality would give this object a “stickiness” absent a web site or PDF. She indicated that the response had been better than anything they’d done electronically, and that it heralded a return to what used to be the norm in the industry. Prior to the internet, every major project required one of these expensive brochures. Today it’s an anomaly and perhaps that sigularity contributes to its effectiveness.

    But I think there’s more to it.

    It may also be that the proprioceptive qualities of the handling and manipulating the physical object makes the interaction more memorable. As the digital environment is almost entirely devoid of any haptic dimension it falls short of the richer experience of handling and manipulating an actual object.

    I’d reckon that the continued proliferation of catalogs would argue in favor of this reality as well. Nordstrom, Saks, Orvis, Crate and Barrel Anthropologie and others spend considerable amounts of money and resources to design, produce and deliver these catalogs and they do in fact linger on the kitchen counters and desktops of their target customers.

    Do others think this “holds true” (if you’ll pardon the expression)?

  5. scott

    “It may also be that the proprioceptive qualities of the handling and manipulating the physical object makes the interaction more memorable.”

    Above-the-like and design agencies have been saying this since the dawn of digital. And clients have been taking the advice. There’s no doubt it’s and part of why I think the real never went away. It just wasn’t the cool thing to focus on.

  6. James

    This may have a lot to do with the disposable nature of many of the “things” in peoples lives that are purchased based on low price/high performance rather than durability.

    Patina has been out of style for a while and “shiny” has been seen as good. This is perhaps most evident in fashion, the built environment in major capitals where “modernity” rules (or at least modernity jammed into an old building) and smartphones.

    I suspect part of the appeal of Apple products is their apparent solidity/design compared to a lot of the other things in people’s lives. This may have eased the way into the experiment with dematerialisation that accellerated with the change in product focus from music to video then the Internet.

    As the market moves away from Apple and into other platforms such as Android; people once again return to less tactile/pleasant interface devices. Couple this with the emerging movement against consumerism maybe the shift back to physicality/reality is not that surprising IMHO.

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