prewriting: digital being v. physical being

We experience being-in-the-digital-world as distinct from being-in-the-physical-world. For example, we experience the existence of a pdf text as different from a physical text, even when the two text contain the exact same words. Not all digital things have such a close physical analogue as in the digital text/physical text example. For example websites, IDEs, word processors, photo-editing software or quite distinct from any physical analogue they might have.

Initially I wanted to explore instances of when we experience digital things as (i) abundant, instantiated, and existing in multiple places at once (ii) simulated and opaque, and (iii) dynamic and never finished. A practical question motivating my exploration was to try and understand the desirability and potential for designing software or hardware that is timeless, ensouled (Stolterman) or achieves heirloom status (Blevis). This question is especially important in the context of sustainability, where rapidly changing software is tied to the rapid obsolescence and disposal of hardware. It’s also important when designing to consider how people meaningfully relate to hardware and software and form attachments with things.

Not having time to look at everything, I focused on how we at times experience digital being as materially abundant and as coming into existence by (temporary) instantiation. The specific experience I focused on was the difference between a pdf text and a physical text. I focused on this example precisely because pdf texts and physical text are very similar as far as content and the way they are used, despite some notable notable differences (e.g. a pdf is searchable, a physical text allows us to navigate by touch). This is in contrast to a software interface such as Photoshop, which is quite different from any physical photo-editing tools, including a darkroom. The content of a pdf is relatively fixed, unlike many digital things and editing pdfs is not very common. This allowed me to focus on how the experience of initiating and terminating our engagement with digital things is different from that of physical things without having to worry too much about how we engage with a use digital things differently than physical things.

The particular example I explored in depth had to do with scanning the Dourish chapter on “Being-in-the-World”, converting the file to pdf, uploading the file to oncourse, downloading the pdf file (multiple times), forwarding the pdf to friends, and printing the file to read and annotate. There is a cycle of transformation from physical being to digital being and back to physical being in this example. This was useful in understanding how digital being “breaks down” and we come to experience the difference between the existence of physical and digital things as each becomes present-at-hand.

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