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When Digital Doesn't Do It

Posted: 05/25/10 03:54 PM ET

"I offered to get a Kindle for my daughter when I saw how filled her backpack was with heavy books -- her response was a flat 'no.'"

This story was relayed to us over dinner with the publisher of a major magazine grappling with the "you-mean-you-don't-have-an-iPad-App-yet-are-you-crazy?" fanaticism that has swept the publishing industry. He seemed a bit bewildered by his daughter's disinterest in lightening the load on her back with a more au courant ebook reader, despite of her iPod-toting and Facebook-friending credentials as a digital native.

Stories like this are all the more common as the rat-race of measuring megabytes, display size, and battery-life grows tiresome, and the world seeks to resettle into its own humanity. We can now effortlessly carry an entire museum collection of images, stay connected to hundreds of "friends" across time zones, and outsource much of our daily fact retrieval to the computers in our pockets. Yet in a world where technology affords limitless quantity of information and connection, the quality of these experiences is more important - and elusive - than ever. Even the younger generation can feel the emptiness of the click, when there is no feeling behind what they are clicking.

Amidst the ethos of I click, therefore I am, the rest of our bodies - and especially our hands - have taken a largely secondary role to our eyeballs and fingertips. When the two of us moved habitats from the capital of technological wizardry (MIT) to the capital of handmade integrity (RISD), it became clear how so much nuance, detail, and emotion has been lost in the "advancement" to the digital and the virtual. For example, we all stuff documents into perfect digital folders on our computer desktop that never appear to wear (to signify age), differ in size (to signify how much is in them), or even get "full" for that matter -- it's as if information is constantly on Prozac in the digital world. In other words, by removing the dirty, messy irregularity of our world so as to fit into mouse-able morsels of data, we lose the subtleties that empower our intuitions.

Now is the time to integrate what is great about the virtual world with all that works best in the real world. The first step is to realize that the future we are constructing has a few missing ingredients: grit, imperfection, nuance, and most importantly, feeling. We need to integrate the hand-based, kinetic, emotional approaches of art and design into the fabric of how we develop and use technology, in how we make sense of the present, how we invent the future, and in how we do business on- and offline.

Only then will "insanely great" experiences become the norm rather than just another long line wrapping around the block to pick up Steve Jobs' latest creation. Only then will products like the Kindle appeal to those like the publishing exec's daughter, who still prefer heavier, but more beautifully tactile, books. Lovingly handcrafted, the books still capture the feeling of the content, the literal weight of each of the words, and the emotional experience of reading, better than their digital counterparts. And until the digital can do the same, until make-you-cry art and makes-total-sense design are at the heart of all of these products, we will surely remain attached to the physical. Art and design sit at the heart of how we feel as humans - and in a so-called "experience-based economy" you can bet that how we feel matters more than anything else.