A few days ago in the NY Times, there was a story reflecting on Amber Case’s idea that we are all cyborgs, using a wide range of tools for both physical and mental modification. The key idea in the story is lamenting the loss of memories that have physical embodiments, such as a photograph that has both meaning in what it contains, but also meaning in it’s physical container. In contrast, the digital photographs of today still have their meaning, but the container is meaningless, because it’s virtual. It could just as easily be opened on one of a hundred photo viewing applications and displayed in an infinite number of ways and devices.
To me, the divorce of information from embodiment is one of the most powerful but subversive aspects of software as a medium. It underlies nearly every major change in industry currently under debate, including music, print, libraries, publishing, journalism, movies, and every other kind of media. But the question that I still puzzle over is whether this divorce is a necessary part of preserving the power of computing. Does the ability to change a photo’s container require that the container doesn’t have meaning? Or, put another way, do people ascribe meaning to their cell phones and digital photo frames, even though they can now display any photo in the world?
An interesting case of this happened a few months ago when my iPhone’s USB port died and I could no longer charge it. It had a few identifiable scuffs on it, and I certainly had a memory for all of the places that I’d been with it and all of the photos I’d taken with it. But when I exchanged it for a nearly identical replacement phone, it only felt foreign for a few days. In fact, sometimes I mistake it for my old phone. This special case of an identical but different container is an interesting ones, because it speaks directly to the question at hand: what meaning, if any, is there in physical objects, other than our memories of them?