Today, much of our communication, information and personal memorabilia come in digital not material form. These electronic bytes that we regard as our possessions are summoned on demand and stored on hard-to-imagine clouds. As tangible things are replaced by digital experiences, what now for the physical object? Could we reach a point where all this invisible data makes three-dimensional objects obsolete?
Objects document human evolution and achievements through their physical presence, and give out clues on identity. Whether we are aware of it or not, we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves. But what about digital possessions? The philosopher Walter Benjamin said of collecting, his passion, that "it approached the soul […] through the object’s physical manifestation and the history written palpably on its surfaces". Benjamin loved his books not really for the words they contained, but for "the blend of content, craft, and wear-and-tear that told the story of each book’s fateful journey to its place in his library." By losing the object’s physicality and journey into our lives, we lose parts of our ownership over it.
It might seem that with digitisation, physical objects are increasingly becoming irrelevant in our lives. But the real picture is more complicated than that, and there are two interesting stories here. Firstly, many branded offerings are blurring the boundaries between the physical and the digital. And secondly, consumers, far from rejecting physical objects altogether, seem to be looking to own better: to own physical objects that are loaded with more meaning.
Many brands are bridging the two worlds, integrating the digital and abstract with the analog and tangible in order to create experiences that are not only more efficient and intuitive but also more profound. For example, the Apple Hermès watch offers the latest technology married with a legacy of craftsmanship to create the ultimate tool for modern life.
Meanwhile Sephora has recently launched its 3.0 retail space: a connected beauty store. In an unprecedented bridging of physical and digital shopping channels, it offers products in-store alongside a digital catalogue of thousands of products. It has also set up Beauty Workshops where customers can watch video tutorials, take a class with a Sephora team member, and share content online. The digital and physical are merged to enable a heightened and more personal experience.
The rise of the digital also seems to have engendered a change of attitude toward physical ownership. Ownership isn’t hard anymore: many can own whatever their hearts desire and are drowning in mountains of physical stuff. Discomfort with all this has led us to an age of minimalism, with de-cluttering movements on the rise, and how-to guides on leading a minimal lifestyle. Swedish photographer Sannah Kvist has documented the lives of her 20-something friends among their (very few) worldly possessions—allowing them a nomadic freedom.
And it is no secret that Millennials don’t own ‘traditional’ things anymore, and would rather cash in on experiences rather than things.
However, it is not a matter of owning less, rather of owning better. With an evolution of consciousness, wanting to own more significant stuff is increasing. Value no longer lies in the act of purchasing, but rather in the act of having—what we get from this object. Physical objects that have an impact allow us to accomplish one of these three things: do something worthwhile with it, tell others about it, or have it say something about us.
How we manage these two worlds of the physical and the digital in years to come remains to be seen, but there are sure to be great gains for the brands that understand these relationships best.
Amira Akl is research executive at Flamingo London