I did a talk at Start JG at the beginning of December and rather than go back to my last deck, I thought I'd take the time to revisit the structure and think about it further — to see if anything new or interesting came to light.
My first Slideshare presentation, which has racked up over 50,000 views thus far, was about the value of objects within the context of printing. The second was about objects in general (not printing), but there seemed to be an element missing — that it was more about how objects speak to people, but not so much as why.
So, in going through it again, I remembered something that had come up in an earlier talk at LBi, that we pepper our everyday language with the word things. And looking up the word things in a dictionary provided the clue: one of the many definitions was: An action, event, thought, or utterance: matters (“things have changed”), characteristics (“they had one thing in common”), abstract patterns (“the latest thing in retail”). In other words, any other separate entity.
Or more specifically, the use of the word things is actually applied to quite abstract and nebulous concepts, ideas and notions that are anything but self-contained entities. Indeed, the application of the word is indicative of what's going on in our minds — we are mentally objectifying concepts in order to make them fit and aid our understanding. At which point, I remembered that Baudrillard in his book The System Of Objects had observed that all human infants learn to relate to objects as a stepping stone to relate to people — the beginnings of their process of understanding themselves as separate entities — the self.
This seemed to be a breakthrough thought — if human infants' initial encounter with objects informed their fundamental understanding of the world, then that understanding would be central to all human understanding of the world. Objects are what we learn first and objects are second-nature to us.
Aside from the fact that this infant experience is universal — all human infants stuff inanimate objects in their mouths, not because they're hungry, but because they have more nerve endings in their mouths than anywhere else — it means that the connection with objects and people is fundamental to the human condition. Objects are the same as people.
Now, perhaps thirty years ago, this would be of little relevance, since aside from the mental convenience of thinking of things, all of our encounters would be with distinct, separate entities. However, with the advent of digital communications we are growing increasingly reliant on a technology that doesn't exist in neat, self-contained entities (though the false objectification of digital elements into folders, apps, icons etc. are all testament to the need to make them appear familiar). Digital isn't like us; it's alien (anyone who's experienced that feeling of being immediately bamboozled by web developers will appreciate this).
For people and organisations faced with the task of communicating complex or hard-to-understand concepts and ideas — especially digital ones — turning those ideas into something that fits the human understanding or the world will make them easier to grasp.
That objects are the same as us is a real benefit. Digital technology isn't the same as us; it's actually a whole interconnected maelstrom of code and numbers that isn't separated into neat separate entities.
Furthermore, digital is an incredibly efficient way of distributing words and pictures (an improvement on printing, but no different) that all have to be thought about. Digital is a predominantly intellectual medium — you have to think about the content in order to understand it; intuition plays little part. Yet, the explosion of digital media forces a primitive human response to any complex situation — to make us rely more on intuitive judgements; to think less and feel more.
So, a paradox is developing. Technology dishes up vast amounts of information we have no time to process, forcing us to become more intuitive, but at the same time, confronts us with a media experience which intrinsically has no intuitive interaction. Thus we crave a different way of understanding — something more real, more intuitive; something more emotional.
Physical objects, in being like us, might be a very natural way of bridging a gap in our communications. Quite ironic, given that they're the very oldest form of communication.