Reach out and touch someone
On the phenomenon of dematerialization, the disappearance of split-flap boards, and one reason the "metaverse" may not feel like quite enough
The modern smartphone replaces such a wide array of old devices in such a compact format that it is sometimes hard to really fathom. In a single palm-sized device, we get a high-definition television, a broadcast-quality video camera, a computer (which would not that long ago have passed as a supercomputer), a calculator, an alarm clock, a GPS tracker -- and a telephone. The economic term "dematerialization" may not roll off the tongue, but it compactly describes what is happening: Less stuff is required to engage in a lot of ordinary life.
■ With dematerialization, though, comes an aesthetic toll. Familiar objects that used to move and make noises have been replaced by smooth, silent, motionless screens. Noisy split-flap boards are mostly gone from airports and train stations. Keyboards yield to swipe typing. The word "rewind" is merely a linguistic artifact since video and audio tapes are no more.
■ By and large, dematerialization means lower costs, higher technology, and more efficient use of raw materials. But people can be forgiven for feeling a sense of dissociation, especially if they remember a past where lots more things clicked, clunked, and had to be moved. Things broke a lot back then -- the V-hold on the TV didn't always work, the phone cord got frayed, and the cassette tape often snapped. But there were real sensations that aren't replicated by today's experiences, even with haptic feedback enabled for an app.
■ Taking so many actions that used to require things and transferring them to screens also introduces a high frequency of reorientation. The average smartphone has dozens of applications installed, and developers often get restless and think they need to refresh the look. When an app icon changes, the gateway to what it does changes. That stands in stark contrast to the ways of the materialized world, in which people pay good money to access classic user experiences with the dials, knobs, and switches of the past.
■ Not all of the classic materialized experiences were good, and their susceptibility to malfunction and wear detracts a lot from their purely aesthetic appeal. But once in a while, one encounters a pre-digital artifact like an elegant sauna gauge designed to offer three readings within a single panel, and it raises the question whether our infinite scrolling and hamburger menus end up discouraging designers from thinking about how they can serve up experiences worth re-living.
■ It's not obvious that every smartphone should have to come with a big, noisy, spring-loaded button -- but nor is it obvious that we should embrace the cartoonish virtualization of real-life experience. Sometimes it's prudent to press "pause".