Why Physical Objects Matter...at least for now

Seems like a strange topic for a blog, right? Of course physical objects matter! I am writing this on one, I use one to get to work everyday. But we may be closer than we realize to a world where we have increasingly less contact with actual physical objects.

Consider a future where your computer and phone are part of your body. Or beyond that, to a time when you no longer even have a body. Your existence becomes purely virtualized. I know, it sounds crazy but when you start walking down Singularity's exponential path, mixing in Moore's Law, you may start to see that this future could intersect your lifetime. In many ways we are, perhaps unintentionally, conditioning ourselves to this transition. Technology is already invading our biology.

Digital experiences are becoming the norm. Soon we may have few areas of our existence that don't have a direct digital aspect. This ranges from always-on Bluetooth headsets to sleep monitoring. It just makes sense that we are moving towards digital co-habitation. But I'm concerned we may get lost in the transition. 

When we interact with physical objects we have a distinctly different experience than interacting with digital objects. Physical objects engage all of our senses- we can smell, feel and touch the object. It can age and change. In engaging all our senses it also taps into all our types of memory. These older types of sense memory are much stronger than our more recently evolved verbal memory. As I learned in Moonwalking With Einstein- we can remember an image for years but words slip away easily, they need another sense to act as an anchor.

Presently, our digital experiences only engage a few of our senses- sight, hearing and maybe touch. But they do not engage smell at all and barely touch, touch. Digital experiences often go by like a TV show. Something we watch with interest but stand removed. 

Physical objects ground us in a particular way- they require our presence. We cannot interact with them in any meaningful way without being present. Also, they can age and change. They can be lost. They cannot be infinitely cloned like a digital object. There is no "iCloud" for people and stuff- at least yet. Most importantly they engage all our senses which leaves dimensional craters in our memory. This connects us to the passage of time and to each other. We all share in this fully immersive reality but it seems we are running from it towards inferior digital realities.

The further we move towards digital interactions that only engage a few senses the closer we get to becoming Star Trek's "borg". A being that has forgotten its humanity. Ironically to avoid becoming the borg we may need to speed up digitally connecting our bodies. Our digital experiences need to engage all of our senses. Maybe digital spaces could have a feel and smell all their own- like walking down a hall in high school.

I fear we may need to quickly become the borg to save our humanity. If we spend too much time in transition we may collectively lose some of our fundamentally human characteristics. A quick change could bring all that we love about analog human experience directly into a digital existence. But inbetween we are left with a half real digital existence. That will wear on us. The way we flock to the newest devices reminds me of how everyone sold their records when CDs came out and then many grew to regret it later. We must remember that analog existence has its charms. Let's not lose ourselves as we embrace the Singularity.