Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing – 7/13/12

Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

As the world grows more and more digital, it’s going to take a while for people to adapt to the idea of stuff being less and less real – or, rather, less physically real. Virtual things are just as real in a lot of ways, but you can’t squeeze them. Over time, concepts like virtual money and virtual storage and so on have become or are becoming commonplace enough that we’re getting used to them. But the inherent lack of tangibility is a weirdness; it’s something we have to get our small human heads around. Since the beginning, everything we’ve dealt with has been there.That’s not the case any more.

For a long while I had a hard time using bank drive-through windows. The separation made me nervous. It’s my money we’re dealing with, you know, and I felt very powerless with the whole thing unless I was able to see the whites of their eyes (or, in gentler times, have at least the option to reach across the counter and throttle them if something went wrong. Bulletproof glass ruined that for me). Eventually though, convenience won out over nervousness and I drive merrily through like everyone else. I still can’t bring myself to use an ATM to make a deposit, though. Doesn’t seem real. Who can I throttle if something goes wrong?

Similarly, it’s taken a fair bit of time for people to get comfortable with ideas like cloud storage. Push computing, superthin clients, and software as a service have all struggled to varying degrees. Why? Honestly, it’s because people aren’t 100% comfortable yet with the idea that things of value, things they’ve paid for or that are worth money, aren’t under their roofs.

Naturally we get used to things over time. I once got physical DVDs from Netflix; now I stream my movies through my Xbox. I have a box in the garage full of old CDs, but long ago I fed them all to Amazon Cloud Player and forgot about them. DropBox is host to the vast majority of my personal files; more still are held on Google’s servers, where I don’t even retain local copies. Streaming services like Gaikai and OnLive promise to change the way we own video game software. Microsoft’s next version of Office will have entirely-cloud versions. I’d hazard a guess that in ten years or so, practically all the software and entertainment we consume not only won’t exist on physical media, but we won’t even have digital copies in our possession.

This leads to an interesting juxtaposition with modeling and simulation concepts. To this day I run into people – well meaning, intelligent people – who get the heebie-jeebies at the thought of no more physical prototypes. The irony, of course, is that physical prototyping is less consistent, less exhaustive, less robust, less able to support all variables, and less affordable than the virtual kind.

Logically, everyone understands this. If I design a part and then build a few for testing, I’ll maybe melt one, leave another out in the sun for a while, marinate a third in salt, run over the fourth with a car, what have you. Based on the results I’ll tweak my design and probably go through the whole process again. It’s expensive and slow, and I only get a very narrow window of results.


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