We Live In a Very Physical World

With so much talk about online communities, it is easy to believe that we now live in a virtual world, in which the flow of bits and bytes completely determines how we interact with others. Three recent experiences reminded me how very physical our world still is and how far we are from a truly virtual experience.

Normally, I don’t do much hardware repair, but today I removed a hard drive from a Powerbook G4 to attempt to recover data off it. The sleek, Apple aluminum case itself was dinged and bent all over from so many collisions with who knows what. I removed plates, plugs, modules, keys, and countless screws. My hands turned grey from contact with dirty aluminum and steel. The instructions repeatedly cautioned me to take care with this wire and that cable. When I finally had the drive in my hands, I heard it attempt to spin up … and fail … over and over again. The drive wouldn’t spin — the bytes trapped on the magnetic medium with no way out.

We live in a very physical world.

I recall a film I used to watch with students called Secrets of Silicon Valley. The film weaves together two stories set amidst the economic boom of Palo Alto. One conerns the struggle of PluggedIn, a local community technology center, to locate a new site for its program. Their old rental property is sold, then bulldozed for a large chain. The organization secures funding, buys a property, and refurbishes an old building so that kids can have a space to access free computers and training. The second storyline describes one HP employee’s struggle to battle the giant company over the health hazards of working on the printer assembly line. Injured backs, cardboard cuts, and respiratory ailments all accompany the grueling work of getting new printers to customers.

We live in a very physical world.

I am reading Let My People Surf, the Patagonia story as told by its founder Yvon Chouinard. He talks of the enormous environmental cost of shipping goods across the United States. The act of shipping a piece of clothing from California to Massachusetts consumes as much energy as does manufacturing the article all the way from raw materials to finished product. The financial cost of shipping is cheap, but the environmental cost is very expensive. I think of all of the computers and peripherals that ship from China, Texas, and California. Thank goodness we at least buy projectors and displays locally.

We live in a very physical world.

While cleaning up, we recently discovered three old, heavy projectors that are of no use to us anymore. I found the original documentation (1996) on the web. State of the art at the time, the unit boasted 640×480 resolution and 250 lumens. My 1997 Civic still feels perfectly useful and current. This projector is practically from the stone age. Thankfully, FreeGeek is willing to accept, refurbish, and find a useful home for the unit. Otherwise, it would be off to the e-waste recycling center.

We live in a very physical world.

Recently, the Apple tech support center was shut down for the good part of a day because of a burst water pipe in their building.

We live in a very physical world.

I recently attempted to help a vision-impaired faculty member expand his computer use. He is masterful with Outlook, filtering email correspondence by student name so that he may keep track of conversations. When browsing the web, however, he is completely lost. His screen reader dutifully marches down the sidebar of the New York Times, reading each link in turn: “politics … washington … education.” The blaring headline article in the middle of the page catches my eye first, but his screen reader never gets there. After listening to 20 sidebar links, he attempts to click on an article but just ends up in another section. He gives up. I cannot find a shortcut key that will get him to the main article in the center of the page … so apparent to me.

We live in a very sensorial world.


  1. Jim Heynderickx says:

    The funny thing is that your last comment is maybe most accurate.

    We’re almost all asleep as to the extent that we are burning through natural resources to fulfill materials needs and wants. It’s all great for the profit margins, but the growth (especially as many more consumers "come online" in developing countries) is pretty scary in all of its ramifications.

    Maybe that’s why I waste so much time thinking about sailboats– contained living environments with low fuel needs and incredibly efficient DC electrical systems (some that run entirely off of solar). It’s not just the "freedom" that Capt. Jack Sparrow talks about, but the knowledge that the vessel and trip are incredibly efficient, especially on a boat that’s been actively used for decades.

    In the end, though, it is all about the senses– the clothing, the projectors, the sunsets, the sunrises. I always thing of comptuers as "cognitive tools," but in another way they are entirely "sensory tools." Kids realize that, and we try to redirect them, but overall computers are increasingly designed to play on our senses.

    I wonder– in addition to the normal five senses, what about the mind? In the way it interacts with a computer, is that just "visual" and "auditory," or it is it more?

  2. rkassissieh says:

    It is more — that’s the virtual part that we all get so excited about. These new virtual frontiers are real and exciting, but they sometimes cause us to forget how it all runs on a very physical platform of steel, plastic, circuits, and cable.