Justin Li

Digital Object Permanence


Of my four classes and research, philosophy and HCI makes me think the hardest. And as someone who likes to minimize the work they do, I often just translate those thoughts into posts.

Last week, discussion during the class suggested that people think of paper as a more permanent storage option than magnetic disks. If a document or a book is in paper, it is tangible, whereas it seems much easier for the book to disappear if it's just stored in cyberspace. Of course, people lose pieces of paper all the time, but at least while they have it it's touchable. It was also suggested that people need to get used to the notion of digital storage, that the document or book will still be there when the user turns on the computer again, and won't simply disappear for no reason.

Phrased that way, the problem reminded me of the concept of object permanence. Originally used to describe a concept learned by infants as early as 8 months old, it seems that adults will have the learn the concept all over again when they familiarize themselves with digital technology.

I think part of the problem is that the older generation have not had as much experience with technology and digital equipment. It seems to me that my generation, a generation which has grown up on computers and iPods and various other digital gadgetry, have no problems with the concept. In fact, if a file mysteriously disappears on people's hard disk, they would a lot more surprised than if the file remained where the user last "saw" it.

Of course, at a certain level the concept is the same: what is real remains real over time, if nothing happens to it. This applies to balls that you hide with your body, to paper stored in filing cabinets, to tiny electrons in the hard disk of your computer. Besides familiarity and experience with digital technology, another problem would be that the general population is simply not as educated about how hard disks work. Because the method of storage is imperceptibly small, people lose their sense of object permanence.

All that being said, I don't think paper can be completely replaced by technology... yet.