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?
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.
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.