Albums, books, and other objects are being replaced by unseen data—but new ways to craft our identities are emerging, too
By the time this post has gone to press, Google will have announced its latest creation, Google Music. It's Google's retort to Amazon's Cloud Drive, a sound cloud in the sky that was launched earlier this year where all your music can live hard-drive free and network-accessible. The critics will complain of its many flaws (you have to upload all your songs manually, there are network issues, and the record labels will be cranky), but for some of us, it will mark a transition that's been spoken about for a while but has only arrived now. We will no longer possess, in a formal sense, our own stuff. Not even on our hard drives. Instead, it will have gone fully virtual, kind of like Tron but without the neon suits. Slowly but surely, our belongings are vanishing into the cloud.
At first glance, this is a little scary. At places like frog, a company known for its embrace of industrial design, we are used to the idea that physical forms are desirable, even aspirational (think the sexy curves of a Porsche 911, or the refined sensibility of Dieter Rams's classic appliances for Braun). Physical objects identify us, brand us, and send palpable signals to others about who we are. They communicate us to the wider world. The shift to a world driven by software has been one that many people have made somewhat begrudgingly, especially when wondering what it might be like to visit a friend's apartment and not be able to sort through a stack of vinyl or browse through their bookshelf. What will replace that? Will those things really just disappear, and along with them, a part of our identity?
As it turns out, no. When it comes to identity, users have historically been locked in a dance with the devil—our data in return for some subsidized service (search, email, whatever). Frankly, in the past it's been a raw deal, because the data has typically been working for advertisers, rather than for us. But smart designers are now turning this equation on its head, creating a raft of sexy, bespoke services that use our data to better reflect our identities in their products, and (if we so choose) share that data with the wider world. They are designing these services to be transparent, intuitive, and delightful. And they are pointing the way towards a future where sharing data is actually worth doing. Which, if you think about it, was the whole point of the Internet in the first place.
Case in point: Foursquare. Not long ago, Foursquare was not one of my favorite services. It's potentially invasive, takes time to do, and eats up network bytes. In return, it offers badges, which have become their own form of virtual branding but have not been all that useful. If you're one of the unconvinced (as I was), then check out Foursquare's new Explore feature, which takes all the data you provide, mashes it with what it knows about your friends and your neighborhood, and gives you a list of new things to try and places to go: bars, cafés, music venues, you name it. Not only that, but Explore reveals why it made each recommendation, while handing out props to friends who frequent the service. In a single step, they've out-Yelped Yelp, and given Foursquare perhaps it's most important raison d'être to date.
Another is Paper.li, a startup I've been keeping tabs on since last year. It scrapes through your Twitter and/or Facebook feed for links, sorts them into categories and identifies the top articles being shared through your personal network, and then creates a smartly formatted internet "newspaper" that includes your top links for the day. Your "paper" is then sharable, in the hope that what you (and your network) finds interesting might also be interesting to other people. Not only is it providing an imminently useful service—a Flipboard for the browser—it gives your own interests and curatorial ability a platform. Not bad for not having to pen a single blog post.
As for Google Music, I have a bit of a bone to pick. As usual, Google is sitting on a pile of your data (think of all the songs, artists, venues you've Googled over the years), and not doing anything all that interesting with it. Now compare that to young startup Rdio: a Spotify-like cloud music service available in the U.S. It surfaces your music collections to others through social networks and the Rdio app itself, turning you into an effort-free DJ who gets props and influence every time someone gives you a thumbs-up. You may be on the cloud, but your identity's far from lost. In fact, in this case, your identity is everything.
The world may be virtualizing, but the desire to have a personal brand, to be understood, to express yourself, and to communicate to others isn't going away anytime soon. I suppose part of me will miss not being able to actually sort through a friend's vinyl collection, and take pleasure in seeing how it stacks up so neatly and how the records themselves create that rainbow effect when viewed from an angle, or how some of them open like books with the double-wide image inside. But the way things are going, I'll know what my friend is listening to when I walk into his apartment, whether he's in the room with me or not. Maybe he'll have curated the radio station I'm listening to. Maybe he'll even get a commission for it.
But that will happen only if the services available to us attempt to replicate some of the richness of physical environments by reflecting us in virtual environments. The challenge for designers is to consider how we can use personal data to humanize the products we make and sell in order to provide the shot of personality that so many cloud-based services are sorely lacking. As usual, the technology is interesting, but the people who use it will be what transforms a potentially flat and generic virtual existence into something worthwhile.
And think of all the space we'll gain when we clear out those records and books.
Image: Remy Labesque