Rob Walker | Essays


Over the last five or ten years, more people have gotten more comfortable with the notion of “digital goods” having real value. People pay for, collect, and covet objects made of bits and existing only in online games or virtual worlds or other non-physical realms. In a sense, materialist interests and obsessions with physical goods seem to have migrated to a new realm, and I’ve argued that this immaterialism isn’t really all that strange. The entire notion of branding, for instance, turns in part on a belief that the intangible has meaning worth paying for.

More recently, I’ve been collecting a few instances of what looks like the exact opposite of the digital goods idea: things from the digital world crossing over into physical manifestations. The specific instances that got me onto this were the Emoticon Ring and the Cursor Pin (both via Book of Joe). The ring is from a collection called “Signs,” by Chao & Eero Jewel in Finland, which aims to respond to and embody digital communication and connection. The cursor pin (designed by Melle Hamer) was evidently inspired by watching a television show on a Mac, and noticing the cursor arrow ending up, by chance, resembling a pin on some character in the program.

 Emoticon Ring designed by Chao & Eero Jewel

Cursor Pin designed by Melle Hamer

These curious things reminded me of “The Facebook Like Button Stamp” (by Nation) which I’d been somewhat amused by last year (via PSFK), and sent me back through my (digital) files looking for other examples of de-digitization. (That’s a fairly ugly term, of course, but it was the best I could come up with; counter-suggestions are very welcome.) 

The Facebook Like Button Stamp designed by Nation

On a purely visual level, none of these shapes strike me as intrinsically beautiful or even pleasing, so what’s the appeal? There’s something jokey about bringing a cursor arrow, emoticon, or the all-powerful “like” symbol into the physical world. But there’s something else going on here too, and it’s not the opposite of immaterialism at all. Rather, it’s the inevitable flipside of the same phenomenon. Because like all jokes, these contain a truth: a de facto acknowledgement that the border between the worlds often called “virtual” and “real” is extremely porous.

Some of the examples I’ve taken note of involve characters from video games and the like, but that doesn’t seem particularly different from a Mickey Mouse doll or a Hello Kitty bracelet. I’m more interested in the stuff with no personality at all, referencing the most banal symbols of the screen world (like this pillow with the RSS icon, by Craftsquatch) or even attempts to capture the stuff of digital life that isn’t particularly visual at all (as in this somewhat silly necklace noticed by On The Ground Looking Up, from plastique, featuring the disconcertingly large word “tweet”).

Rss Pillow designed by Craftsquatch

 Tweet Necklace designed by plastique

These objects remind me of friends who refer to things that happen IRL (in real life, meaning not online) with a kind of wink, suggesting that the dichotomy between digital and not-digital really has nothing to do with which one is “real.” But I suspect there’s something a little nervous-making lurking within the overt jokiness. Probably most of us see these instances of digital iconography so often, without ever really stopping to absorb them, that they’re more familiar to us than the shape of the leaves on the tree just out your window. That’s sort of funny — and sort of profoundly not funny at all. Maybe making such imagery amusingly physical takes the edge off this uncertainty. It’s clever stuff, though I have to say it’s not clever I’d need to own any of it, or even see it IRL. The digital pictures are real enough for me.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Technology

Comments [18]

Great post!

(v) The physical reproduction of a computer domain object (CDO).

Lifactate < l ai f æ k t ei t >
(n): A computer domain object that enters physical reality.

counter-suggestion offered.

ps. nice piece of writing!



"Undigitize" is slightly more felicitous, perhaps.

You could use "reify" and "reification."

Perhaps we could look at this as the start of a new field of science and call it digital archaeology. Or maybe something like digito-realism?

To Leak, as in

The Inter-tubes are leaking.

L33ted to L33k or L34k

I thought it was called reification.

Thanks all. A couple of other suggestions for renaming "dedigitization" came to me via email (I think maybe there was a hiccup with the comments here):

1. REALization
2. virtual migrations
3. digi-morphs
4. Tactilization

(Thx: Joe S., John L., Deirdre N.)
Rob Walker

This activity (translating the digital into the physical) is reminiscent of when the vernacular was first being heavily quoted and remixed in graphic design. That activity was linked to the ideas of postmodernism at the time. I'm curious what might be driving the actions highlighted in this essay. Are these objects more than just cultural tchotchkes, like porcelain cats or beanie babies? The designers of these products are quoting digital vernacular and giving it physical form in celebration or appreciation of digital culture. It's almost a new genre of fandom? They are fans of digital tools.
Tim Belonax

I made a creative commons stamp a few years ago:
Rory Hamilton

Here is a project calling the same project "undigitizing" for short it could be called "UN-DI". The services the project offers are called "D2T (Digital-to-Tangible)". In the fine-art field the common term is remediation. And it comes from the pastis tradition. http://oree.storijapan.net/more.html#mozTocId755339


Nice article! Here is a link to crafted social media jewlery from Kairo that neatly fits in this context: http://blog.stuttgarter-zeitung.de/dinge/2011/05/18/social-media-amulette-in-kairo/

Here is the original link: http://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/facebook-in-cairo-not-what-you-thought.html
Florian Schmidt

One more suggestion I forgot to include above, via Core77's Twitter:


Lots of other good suggestions here though. Even if I'm not sure I'm ready to dethrone dedigitization quite yet.

Tim: Very thoughtful comment, I like the notion of it as a "new genre of fandom." Still pondering that.

Florian: Great link!

Thanks all...
Rob Walker

"I’m more interested in the stuff with no personality at all, referencing the most banal symbols of the screen world (like this pillow with the RSS icon, by Craftsquatch)"

This is very interesting statement to me, being a vanguard member of what will surely come to be known as the "internet generation". While the icon is, indeed, fairly lifeless aesthetically, I instinctually feel like it has a powerful personality - that of all the websites in my feed.

A better illustration in my personal case would be reddit's upvote arrow or "orangered" envelope indicating that I have a private message. Feelings and personality are attached to these relatively inert symbols - they are the hivemind coming to call.
Craig Messner

visit www.cursorpin.nl for a better deal
melle hammer

This is fascinating to me. A decade ago, you wouldn't expect culture to ever become so "geekified" that internet "stuff" would become an acceptable fashion accessory. Furthermore, the amount of worth that people place in the worth of these goods has led to the creation of an actual marketplace for these digital goods at a number of http://www.buyfacebookfansreviews.com and other similar sites to sell more of these likes and other non-physicals items. As our culture continues to get more and more technically oriented, I think you will inevitably continue to see more and more physical manifestations of these digital goods. Eventually this will go out of style as people get really tired of how all-consuming computers are in the world, but until that backlash occurs, these are nifty little fashion accessories. :)

Interesting point, Dana. Thanks.

Also, for anybody interested, I still track examples of this sort of thing, here:

Rob Walker

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