Rebounding to the Physical World

As someone who’s entire life sits on the cloud (every piece of paper gets scanned to Google Drive, most of the work I do leverages tools online, and much of my home connects), I’m starting to feel need for greater separation between my physical and digital life. While having everything in the cloud dramatically declutters my world and empowers me to search for things much quicker from anywhere, it also puts everything in my life out of sight and out of mind. When everything is digital, you can forget that it’s there. When everything is physical, it occupies space and weighs on your mind. Even disorganized people who hoard things in indiscernible piles stand a chance to rediscover things eventually, but digital files in folders online hardly nag at you or beg for organization like an ugly pile of mystery.

I read this morning that, per the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales declined over the first nine months of 2016 while paperback sales were up 7.5% and hardback up 4.1% during the same period. Given the general trend towards digitizing everything, I find this particularly insightful to the modern human condition. We’re begging for the physical world back. Reflecting back, my own consumption of physical and digital books tracks with the market trends identified. I bought an early e-ink Kindle and used that for about three years to read everything. As I’ve recommitted to reading this year, I’m finding myself preferring printed books. I find them easier to annotate, harder to ignore when sitting on my nightstand, and more rewarding to complete as finished books pile up on my shelf. I couldn’t tell you under gunpoint how many books I have on my Kindle, but you can see with your own eyes how many printed books I’ve read this year. There’s something special to physical books that you simply can’t replicate yet.

The massive rise of Vinyl sales suggest the same thing: now that we’re finding a way to digitize everything, we’re begging for the option to have a physical copy if we really want one. With the rise of streaming, I was able to get rid of all but my top ten or fifteen favorite DVDs and VHS tapes. I never need or even have the technical means to watch them in that format again (I no longer have a single disc drive in my life and have not owned a VHS player for 11 years), but it’s gratifying to have them on my shelf to share with others, help define me through my tastes, and remind me they exist.

Until augmented or virtual reality finds its way into day to day practical life, we’ll start to see more and more of the physical return to our lives. If for no other reason than having something physical that two or more people can interact with together in a single space, we crave the physical for its power to evoke emotion, get other humans on the same page, and make us feel more alive. Evolution hardwired us to use our hands, hold things, and capitalize on our sense of touch. We simply cannot forget that we’re human after less than 20 years of digital. Do you feel it? I do.