Some thoughts on the physical-digital dichotomy

A little over a week ago, I defended my dissertation proposal. That's a big milestone. My committee asked a lot of valuable questions, and gave some useful provocations. One of the ones I've thought about most since then is something I'd been thinking about for some time before the defense. It's the issue of the physical-digital dichotomy. Something I see as a stubborn habit to view digital artefacts as something completely divorced from the physical world. As if the digital somehow lives in the ether. During the defense, I explicitly stated that I don't believe in a sharp divide between the digital and the physical. I believe they're entangled and intimately related. The challenge posed by one of my committee members was to collapse the two, to not fall back on using the two words, "physical" and "digital," which in a sense create the dichotomy. Here, I present some preliminary thoughts on that divide.

While I do believe that the digital is not at all separate from the physical, at the same time, there are digital artefacts that we do interact with as if they're substantively different from physical objects. Things that are mediated by screens, we treat differently from things that are not. Oftentimes, we treat the screen as the physical substrate for the digital good. There does need to be a concept like "digital" in order to describe the things we program, or view on screens, or whatever the specific case may be. Maybe that concept will eventually cease to exist. Who knows. But we can look at it in some pretty fascinating ways, for the time being. Things that I would currently describe as digital have a set of characteristics like non-rivalry. And that is a difference. Something non-rival has a different set of possibilities, working methods, options for distribution, than something rivalrous. For the time being, it is genuinely a fact that we can share code efficiently by copying it, but can't do the same with a chair. Yes, the code requires computers and wires and electrons in order to exist, but in that existence, it has different traits from the things carrying it. So we can't escape physics, and we can't escape rivalry in the goods we hold in our hands, but we can say that, with the way our existing computing infrastructure works, things like code, things like digital images, can be non-rival. We have designed non-rivalry into our computing systems.

The physical digital dichotomy I don't believe in is the one which says that the physical and the digital are totally separate. They can't be. The digital requires, is built on, exists in and is modified by its physical substrate. But I do crucially believe that there are practical, experiential, qualitative differences between digital goods and physical ones. I do think that we actually need to make that distinction, and not collapse the two in our zealousness to view the digital as physically bounded.