Matthew Southey half-baked half-thoughts    About    Archive    Feed

The Death of Physical Objects

Humans are used to the uniqueness of things. The ability to attend to small differences in the environment were crucial (e.g. following an animal, the smell of uncooked food). The items themselves were also unique - “this is the stone my grandfather gave me, not just any stone” a person might say (if they had the abstract notion of any stone).

Humans first got used to reproducing physical objects by manufacturing tools like arrowheads. Humans got better and better at making similar objects more consistently. The period where nearly-identical high-quality goods started to be produced en masse was called the industrial revolution – the great follow-up to the printing press. The artisan (bespoke goods) was replaced with the factory (manufactured goods). Despite manufactured goods being very similar to each other, such as two rubber ducks, there was an increase in the number of goods one could buy. There was diversity between objects, but similarity within a class of manufactured objects. A child could buy a rubber duck, a comic book, or a rocking horse – all non-unique objects produced in factories and sold at affordable prices.

The information revolution in the mid-20th century, followed by the the personal computer revolution a few decades later, took a huge leap along this path. The insight of encoding, that combinations of symbols from a limited and discrete alphabet could describe many things that humans care about, led to the ultimate reproduction revolution. The fidelity and consistency of reproduction went up, while the cost went down. The costs of producing a unique item, is greater than manufacturing physical duplicates, which is more expensive than digital representations.

The marginal cost of producing an identical copy of an ebook or a digital movie is, for all intents and purposes, virtually zero. Hence the incredible success of tech startups – the cost of another subscriber to Netflix is almost zero. Marginal costs are almost non-existent! Furthermore, the tech industry doesn’t require anywhere near the amount of human capital as physical manufacturing. Just compare the revenue per employee of Apple vs GM – this is a good thing for the consumer and part of the reason why digital products are so inexpensive.

As long (but not a second longer!) as we are “physical” bodies we’ll need “physical” objects like food, shelter, etc. But so many of our other desires need not be delivered in physical (and therefore more unique and expensive) forms. Human culture is radically amenable to digitization. Manufacturers now produce objects that allow for the consumption of digital objects – computers (in different forms such as kindles, tablets, and televisions).

The important aspect of modern computers is the the screen – the medium of communication. The screen is like the slates (miniature blackboards) of the ancient world: they can flexibly (through drawing and erasure) display varied content. However, the screen is orders of magnitude better at displaying human-relevant content than a slate (higher quality, near-instantaneous erasure and redrawing, etc.). The screen, when combined with headphones becomes a one-stop access portal to the world of digital audio-visual media.

This new method of reproduction does not necessarily lead to a decrease in the production of physical objects. But investment is already flowing predominately to the world of tech and away from physical innovation. There are still improvements in manufacturing, but investment in the digital frontier drastically outstrips other investments (look at the growth in the tech sector, and the list of top companies by market cap).

The large set of physical objects which humans have interacted with throughout their evolutionary history has shrunk drastically. The most important objects for most people are computers. For a person who works within the sphere of human culture (which is almost completely digitized now) they would spend almost all their time with computers. They work via a screen, and the majority of entertainment would be consumed via the computer screen. All their time would be spent with the same limited set of physical objects (phone and computer). In a lot of ways this is a great thing, now people get to access a wealth of information unparalleled in human history at a very low cost.

This interaction with limited objects differs drastically from ancestral environments of evolutionary adaptation. We are not made to interact with only a few objects every day and shunt symbols around the screen. As stated before, the ratio between intangible digital objects, and tangible physical objects is not necessarily zero-sum. Except right now we’re going through a pandemic that is seeing an incredible amount of physical experiences pushed into the digital medium. So at least in this historical moment, we are being forced into this bargain. After the pandemic, will the ratio of intangible to tangible goods go back to what it was before?

Due to the pandemic, necessarily physical objects are now industrially manufactured and delivered (grocery store vs restaurant, Amazon vs physical shopping) while everything not necessarily physical is being digitally produced and delivered. Lower costs means more information for more people. The question is whether digital objects displayed on the same screen is enough, especially when that screen is in the same house they’ve been confined to for months. The pandemic is revealing that digital objects and the medium of the screen can not make up a human life. At least, there is currently too much digital life and not enough physical life.

This is hardly a surprise. Most people given the choice between a free book or ebook will choose the book. But given a choice between a $30 book or a $9 ebook many people will choose the ebook. In a utilitarian framework, this is okay if people are given complete information and know what they’re missing. The problem is that many people don’t know what they’re missing and are not fully rational agents. Meaning, that the cost of choosing to consume an object digitally rather than physically has a very low cost that is difficult to feel in a single transaction. During the pandemic, the cost becomes acutely obvious and easily attributable since the physical world has been so obviously replaced with a digital substitute that is lacking (at least at this level of digital replacement).

The same words on a screen are different than those words in a book. A movie in a theater is different than a movie on you computer screen. A classroom is very different than a zoom call. The digital medium (the computer screen) is homogenous and cheap. The physical world is diverse and expensive.

This is not a call for ludism but an acknowledgment of the disharmony between our biological selves and the technological world we’ve created. The benefits of this technological world are vast, but until we ourselves become more thoroughly technological organisms we will be outstripped by our creations. As physical creatures we require a physically diverse and kinesthetically engaging world. Physical beings interacting with a two dimensional screen is insufficient – the medium must change, either through humans becoming digital, or digital objects acquiring a more engaging interface medium than a screen. At least those are the two options going forward. In the past, things were different…