Social Artifacts

One more post that’s (somewhat) related to books and that’s it for the morning.

I’ve written about the rise of eBooks and the disappearance of physical books from our home and other spaces before; as I’ve said, I’m worried that we’re losing some of the manifestations-in-the-real-world of our personalities — signals to ourselves and to others about who we are, what we care about, and what our values are. You might call the general category Social Artifacts or Cultural Artifacts.

Social artifacts are everywhere you look, of course. They’re the items we put on our desks, the pictures we put on our walls, the clothes we wear, the vehicles we ride in, etc etc. Lots of items we have in our lives show implicit values.

[aside: There is, for sure, a difference between what we imply by the choices we make and what others infer about us. I’m glossing over that distinction a bit, but maybe will come back to it.]

There’s a reason why books do such a good job of communicating values, though: there are a lot of choices, and they’re deep choices. While it’s likely that I might love a few books that are the same as the ones that you really love — but there’s just about no chance that in a collection of 20 or 30 that we’d have the same set. And so there’s a richness in the information you get from seeing what books someone has in their house, or that they’re carrying around to read on their lunch breaks over time. With books disappearing from our public and private spaces (we can argue about the pace that it’s happening at, I think, but not about whether it’s starting), we’re seeing different types of signals, but I think they’re more generic. What clothes you wear, what furniture you like, what smart phone you use. (Which, I have to say, is a bizarre social signal. We are not our computers.)

More and more of these social artifacts are virtual, absolutely, and there’s infinite richness there. But it’s pretty uneven. For some people, it’s pretty easy to see their collection of social artifacts because they’ve lived online for a long time and have often curated them. Joi Ito probably has the clearest set of signals, and he’s been working on that for years. Myself, I’m relatively knowable, between my blog, tweets, etc etc. I’ve been playing this week with my profile on Shelfari, too — it’s now got my 15 year media purchase history from Amazon on it — but it isn’t really right. It’s taking my old, physical artifacts and grafting them onto the virtual world.

But for people who aren’t wired a little funny like Joi or me, sometimes it can be hard to see their social artifacts spread around the web. Lots are in Facebook & Twitter. For some people, lots are in Flickr.

Anyway, no real conclusions here. Like every generation, the next generation will find their own ways to express themselves and to interpret others. I think while we’re in the midst of this transition towards more of our lives happening in the ether, we’ll see lots of weird juxtapositions like Shelfari showing collections on screens around the house, and they’ll always look a bit like misfits.

So I guess my takeaway here, in this post that’s a little all over the place, is that I’ll miss books as communicators of personality and values, but am on the lookout for emerging systems and am really, really interested in how we’ll all use them.


  1. I’ve been avoiding the eReaders like the plague for a lot of the reasons you’ve posted about before. It is a little strange since I’ve completely embraced digital music.

    I may be forced to make the switch soon, though. I’m a grad student and lug a lot of (math) textbooks around with me to and from school. But I also love to read on my bus commute which is completely impractical if I read something large at all.

    The past two books I’ve read have been that way, and it has almost pushed me over the edge. I know it’s illogical, but I can’t help but feel that music was expanded with technology, but for some reason books are restricted. It makes no sense, yet on the other hand Jonathon Safron Foer’s new book Tree of Codes would be impossible on an eReader.

  2. John,

    I confess that I am not very good at disconnecting either. I thought it was a great article and as always you are very thoughtful. The emerging research on multitasking — led by Cliff Nass at Stanford — was the stuff that I thought should have been mentioned a bit more specifically. He finds that despite delusions to the contrary, when human-beings (even the young ones who grew up with the devices) try to multitask, the end-up doing everything badly. I did suggest that in my comments, but perhaps it is the academic in me, but I would like to have seen the writer make more clear that there is a lot of evidence behind this, not just the ramblings of some old professor! That is a minor complaint, it was a good piece.