Musings on Physical/Virtual Objects

I’ll be exploring the practicalities associated with destroying physical objects by rationalising my mementos, letters, and a few books. However, before diving in (my analogies are influenced by the Olympics which are underway), here’s an attempt to try and order my thoughts about the subject.

Digitisation has added another dimension to the world we perceive: in addition to the physical objects we’ve always had around us, now there are virtual objects that exist in either physical objects we can see and touch such as laptops or hard disks, or in some remote place we refer to variously as system, web, internet, cloud etc.. Some of these virtual objects, such as on-line games or tik-tok videos, are new entities that did not exist previously; other virtual objects have actually replaced physical objects that would have been created, for example, letters, LP records, printed photos, brochures etc.. A third category of virtual object replicates physical objects, for example, a scan of a physical document/painting or a 3D scan of a piece of pottery. I don’t have any numbers associated with the objects in each of the above categories; but my instinct tells me that the quantity of physical objects that we humans are now dealing with is somewhat less than it would have been if digitisation had not occurred – this despite the undoubted increase in physical objects spurred by digitisation and the growth it has spawned. My instinct also tells me that the ratio of digital:physical objects that individuals interact with is steadily increasing year by year; and that our perception of the things that make up our lives, is changing from being almost totally physically oriented to one in which the virtual is assuming a growing normalcy and importance.

Within this shifting landscape, the options we have for dealing with physical objects are changing. Where we once chose paper, we might choose to go paperless; where we once filed we might choose to scan; where we once kept an object we might choose to simply keep a photo; and where we once may have simply destroyed an object we now might digitise it first and then destroy it. These are the sorts of choices most of us are now making quite often; and they have a number of potential impacts:

  • All these choices affect the number of physical objects in the world.
  • The changing mix of physical/virtual objects in the world, and people’s perception of both types of objects, are probably going to affect what people collect, and the composition of collections eventually acquired by curating institutions.
  • When we choose the virtual as an alternative to creating a physical object we are reducing the number of physical objects that our future progeny will encounter.
  • When we choose to replicate a physical object virtually, and then destroy the physical object, we both reduce the number of physical objects that our future progeny will encounter, and prevent our future progeny being able to experience the physical essence of the object – something will have been lost.

The decision to destroy an object is often considered with either an impulse of certainty (as in the case of destroying evidence of a crime), or a tinge of regret (as might be the case with old love letters). Sometimes both emotions may be present (as perhaps with writings produced our youth which may be both embarrassing yet integral to our past). Such feelings are not the only things that affect the decision. Others include:

Space: a shortage of space may dictate that some things have to go.

Relative age: at 70, an item from one’s youth may or may not be more or less precious than an item from your 70s when you are 90, or an item from your teens when you are in your mid-twenties.

Representation: the emotions that an object conjures up by reminding you of people or events.

Uncertainty: the possibility of wanting or needing the object again in the future must be set against the certainty that the destroyed object can never be reconstituted.

Legacy: the knowledge that other people will be encountering the objects after one’s death, and a possible accompanying desire to bequeath things to others, may inspire notions of organising and rationalising one’s possessions.

In summary, the landscape of our relationship with physical objects is changing. We are a very long way from being physical-objectless, but the direction of travel seems clear – as illustrated by this quote I read in today’s Guardian, “Zuckerberg believes the internet will take on an even bigger role in people’s day-to-day lives in the future, and instead of interacting with it via mobile phones people will be immersed via virtual reality headsets. He said Facebook would transition from a social media platform to a “metaverse company”, where people can work, play and communicate in a virtual environment. Zuckerberg said it would be “an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content – you are in it “[Neate & Rushe]. Now, of course, we should treat such conjectures with a healthy degree of scepticism – but Facebook does have over two billion users…

Whether all this really matters is difficult to say right now – things are changing at a speed which gives us little time to see impacts and make choices. However, our relationship with objects is pretty fundamental, so we should keep an eye on it and try to ensure that we understand what’s going on. My explorations in this journey will attempt to make a small contribution to that understanding.

Neate, R. & Rushe, D., Google, Apple and Microsoft report record-breaking profits, The Guardian, 27th July 2021.

The Halfway House

People have always kept precious physical objects and then destroyed some of them for a variety of reasons. However, digitisation has invaded this relationship by offering a halfway house in which a virtual representation can be retained while still destroying the object. This journey seeks to investigate the impact this might be having on collecting and collections; and on the rationales associated with keeping and discarding. I have already encountered this phenomenon in other investigations documented in this blog – in particular the Digital Age Artefacts journey, though that focused on rationales for keeping things whereas my focus in this Object Obliteration investigation will be the thinking associated with destroying things. The Electronic Bookshelf journey is also relevant since it investigated what digital material would have to be provided to persuade an individual to destroy a book (the follow-up Electronic Story Board journey may also provide further insights). However, this will be a more focused look at the issues associated with completely obliterating an object for ever, as informed by my continuing search for space in my study (space – often the final frontier in which keeping/destroying decisions have to be made) among my books, mementos and letters.