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Published in IT World
October 25, 2005

The psychology of atoms and bits

By Sean Mc Grath

Here are two quick facts for openers. 1) Digital data is a very recent idea in the overall context of human history. 2) It is very, very easy to lose sight of just how recent all this digital stuff is.

Grandma did not have an iPod at the prom. Grandpa did not use a laptop in college. Uncle Bill generated invoices in his Model T Ford repair shop with pen and paper.

A very short period of time has elapsed between then and now. On an evolutionary scale, it amounts to no time at all. No time at all is not a long time for the human race to adapt to the sheer scale of the changes that digitization has wrought on the world.

One of the most profound changes I think is the increasingly abstract nature of the concepts of possession and ownership. The human race is having difficulty making this transition. Grandma can serve as an illustration.

Grandma had an audio collection that consisted of atoms. Grandma was in sole possession of those atoms. Now Grandma did not think of her audio collection in terms of atoms of course. To her, they were vinyl records. That doesn't change the fact that under the hood, the vinyl was just a big set of atoms.

The vinyl records physically lived some place in Grandma's house. Physical possession of the records constituted nine tenths of the law and nine tenths of Grandma's understanding of the very concept of ownership of the records.

Kids on the block used to covet Grandma's records but they would never dare to physically take them. To do so would be wrong. To do so would be dangerous. Various kids mixed these two concepts in different quantities.

Some of today's Grandmas and many of tomorrow's Grandmas will have digital audio collections, sitting on hard disks, connected to a LAN network and possibly accessible by WIFI from the main street. These Grandmas do not think of their record collections in terms of digital bits of information, replicating and flowing unseen through the airwaves. They most likely still cling to the tangible, physical understanding of the records of old.

How about the kids on the block? Well, they are totally at home with the concept of bits. They spend a lot of time moving bits around. They do not associate bits with physical concepts and consequently they do not associate them with ownership in the same way that, say, they associate ownership with an iPod or a laptop.

These kids copy lots of files around the place. Some of those files contain software, some contain music, some contain video. Some of these things they copy around do have ownership and do have possession characteristics but they are not physical. Does copying some files of a shared network drive feel the same as sneaking into someone's house and creeping back out with a CD in your pocket? No. Are kids that copy files somehow less moral or less law abiding than kids from Grandma's time? No.

In order to feel that something is wrong or dangerous you have to feel the wrongness or the danger in your world view. The very nature of digital media inhibits the invocation of the 'wrongness' and 'danger' sentiments. Sentiments that today's kids have in the same abundance as yesterday's kids.

The benefits of digital information are obvious. The psychological problems it raises for concepts of ownership and possession equally so. How to preserve the digital baby and still throw away the digital bathwater?

Let us end with a Gedanken experiment [1]. Imagine a world swimming in digital data (not difficult to imagine). Imagine that all personal computers on the planet come equipped with an e-token reader. E-tokens are the same size as credit cards. Blank e-cards can be bought with various monetary values in every convenience store in the world.

To buy a song off the Internet, a kid will buy a suitably denominated e-token and slot it into a PC. When the song is downloaded to the e-token, a graphic appears in digital ink [2] on the token indicating what is on it.

The e-token can then be 'possessed' in the sense that our hunter/gatherer minds understand possession. Just like grandma's records.

Now, in such a world, would theft of digital music be a bigger issue that it was in Grandma's day?

I don't think so.

[1] http://www.jargon.net/jargonfile/g/gedanken.html
[2] http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.05/ff_digitalink_pr.html