In the real, physical world, we interact with objects all the time. From caveman days, we lifted and moved stones and sticks from place to place. In modern society, we still move (and lose) objects around our homes, our offices, or really anywhere we are. We have to touch and physically move things within our spaces to get things done and interact with our natural world. In this image of our world and our experience as a species, we designed computers.

We are now standing under an exit sign with the 1.0 era of computing at our backs. And concurrently, we are likely exiting an even longer era of human development. We seem to be drifting away from the physical world and farther into new realities. Imagination, sci-fi, and real are blurring more every day.

This increasing detachment from the physical world is becoming more obvious in two primary ways: computer interface design and a change in the nature of media ownership. I’m going to talk about both of these in order.

Computer design

For the last 20 years or so, mainstream computing has mimicked the physical world. Files and other virtual objects have been stored in and retrieved from folders. Folder icons are even made to look like their paper-based ancestors. Even programs are perceived to exist in single, static locations.

The first generation of computers emulated the traditional ways in which people and objects interacted. However, this is not necessary going forward. There is no reason that we should have to continue moving virtual objects like files from place to place on a virtual space, the screen in front of us. And there is no excuse for losing virtual objects in a computer's virtual depths.

Our perception tells us that these virtual things are objects like those in the real world. But they are not objects, not in the physical sense. They are only visualizations of data.

Touch computing -- which I will define as smartphone and tablet usage -- is changing how we think about computing. The fact that most people don’t even think about it as “computing” is sign enough that a shift is occurring.

These new devices are very different from traditional PCs from a usability standpoint.

A PC is like a desk with many drawers. It invites squirreling. A tablet or phone with a touch screen, on the other hand, brings everything to the top of the desk gracefully without the clutter.

The digital spaces in which we interact are getting flatter, and we can rapidly bring things to the surface by simply typing in a search field, the hallmark of any modern interface. No digging, no moving, no lifting. Instead: thinking and doing.

Computers today are amazing, but they will be seen as incredibly primitive when compared to their successors later this century. As computers continue to evolve, they will handle even more primitive lifting and moving for us. Increasingly, computers will serve has high speed synapses for thought (both incoming and outgoing).

Human social networks will grow with computers at the nodes. We will spend less time being mechanics and more time being human. More time thinking, interacting, contributing, absorbing.

We will shift farther from low-level brain function to higher (cerebral) brain function while computing. This is simply a continuation of a journey that began with the introduction of our species on this planet. When people were predominantly hunter-gatherers, there was little time for thought; we were just trying to exist.

As mass agriculture gained a foothold, it freed up time to do things other than lifting, moving, and gathering. It freed up time for thought.

Technological innovation has been accelerating ever since.

As more time is available for thought, we have more time for being uniquely human – more time for cerebral thinking. It’s always been happening; it’s just happening faster. Technological innovation is merely a manifestation of an ever increasing ratio of “thinking time” to “working time.” This ratio and innovation are inextricably intertwined and beget each other.

It probably sounds like I’m conjecturing some sci-fi future. But today – right now in 2010 – the things we can do with mobile computing would have been absolutely sci-fi to our perceptions a mere 5 years ago.

And don’t underestimate the removal of search time.

We have an immeasurable amount of reference material that is always a seconds-long search away. Increasingly, if someone has already solved a problem, the answer is already online. It matters not where that person is; geography is becoming a non-factor. Even language is becoming irrelevant. Never before, as a global society, have we been able to immediately leverage information and past mistakes.

More thinking and more doing.

This is all good, right? Yes, innovation is generally a positive word. With innovation, however, comes change. And increasing rates of change mean less predictability about future states of technology.

Where three thousand years ago we could say with confidence that the technologies used a hundred years hence would resemble those currently in place, now we can barely predict the shape of technology fifty years ahead.

–W. Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology

Media ownership

One of the most noticeable ways we began transitioning away from owning physical objects began in the 1990s with the success of mp3s. Before the existence of digital audio files that could be easily exchanged over a network, we had more of a sense of ownership when we purchased music.

Buying music meant buying a physical object: a record, a cassette tape, or a CD. Owning music was necessarily synonymous with owning the objects on which the music was recorded.

We carried this sense of ownership forward into the mp3 era because we still purchase (or gather) mp3s as objects and store them on our computers. Digital albums even bear artwork, a throwback to the days of album covers.

The breakdown of object ownership is at the core of the record label company’s frustrations in the last 15 years. Once the physical requirements around media ownership went away, it became harder to control what everybody “owned.” In a world of virtual objects, it becomes increasingly impossible to control distribution.

Consumers and even the recording artists easily and naturally become distributors themselves. And audio files can instantly be duplicated, deleted, moved, even modified. The realness of art becomes more about art itself and less about how it is delivered.

In many ways, we’re coming to terms with this not-so-small revolution. And eventually, the sense of physical ownership over media will slip away, not unlike a group of balloons set aloft into the sky.

As cloud computing becomes more mainstream, even less of our media will reside on hard drives, another object we stand to lose. More data will reside in the cloud.

How will media ownership work in the future? Will we pay for the right to stream data from cloud-based servers? Will ownership be defined strictly in terms of usage rights? If so, that’s not really ownership, is it?

In any event, the trend away from having a sense of owning objects will continue. We will continue heading toward a time when our creative ideas and thoughts are the primary assets we own. Those cannot be taken away.

It may seem unsettling. But in a sense, nothing is changing. In the end, our reality and our sense of being will still be governed by our perceptions -- as they have always been. But life will continue to become more abstract as our reality is bolstered less by physical objects and more by imagination and virtual worlds.

Do we need physical objects at all? Will the departure from the physical come in handy as we outgrow our planet? Was object ownership always an illusion?

More questions than answers.

From changing realities back to practicalities: How does this affect me today?

You can improve your own life, workflows, and experiences by looking for technologies and tools that do more of the mundane lifting in your life. If you find yourself doing something repeatedly, pause for a moment and consider how something without a cerebrum might do it for you. Put repetitive tasks on autopilot.

The trademark of an advanced society is specialization. People do what they’re good at. Let’s look for ways to let computers do what they’re good at, and in turn, let’s spend more time specializing in being human, thinking, and doing.

As long as you're thinking, you'll be fine. Be critical, but be constructive. Be creative, but be practical. And above all, be you.