Physical plus digital, but more physical than you might think

Until quite recently, the world of recorded information was physical: print-on-paper, plus the paper card ‘machinery’ well described by Marcus Krajewski’s book Paper Machines. Mechanised documentation – punched cards, edge-notched cards, and the like – added some automation, but were still very much physical objects. Then the information world became a bit digital, with computer databases and online searching, and then very digital, with the internet and all that flowed from it. And at the same time, the rest of the world of documents, in the broadest sense, and collectable things – books, music, photographs, movies, art and museum objects – also became partly of wholly digital.

And so we became accustomed to the idea of a hybrid information world, and perhaps a hybrid world in general, a world of ‘physical plus digital’. And there seemed to be an assumption that the world, or at least the information and communication parts of it, was moving inexorably towards an all-digital condition.

Well, perhaps not. There has always been a realization among those who study these things, and – perhaps ironically – among those who are best versed in digital matters, that we are likely to end up with a balance. I recall seeing, quiet a few years ago, an exhibition mounted by Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects company who made their name with their work on the first Star Wars films. One of the exhibition’s tag lines was ‘Digital plus Physical equals the Future’. I recall thinking at the time that they ought to know,

And now Embracing Analog, a report from JWT Intelligence, a division of J Walter Thompson the best-known advertising agency in the world, looks at the issue afresh. The report, by the way, was brought to my attention by one of more informative tweeters, Lena Rowland.

Frank Rose
Frank Rose

In true adman style, the report’s subtitle tells us that “physical is hot”. Its author, Frank Rose, finds that although there is still enthusiasm for digital, in many aspects of life people are seeking out, and valuing, physical equivalents. While speed, convenience and low cost are powerful motivators for seeking digital materials, physical items have an emotional resonance, an authenticity, and a pleasing imperfection, which is driving increased purchases of physical books, music, pictures and films, and even writing paper and traditional-style wristwatches. We are aware of the resurgence of vinyl records, but Rose reminds us that even cassette tapes are making something of a come back.
Quite what this means for the communication of information, and the concerns of information specialists, is not easy to tell. Certainly not a return to library stacks of printed journals, nor to card catalogues. But we should not assume that the information world, any more than any other part of the world, is going to be inexorably all-digital; the digital-plus-physical balance is likely to be more subtle than that. And much more interesting.

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