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Part 00110001: Challenge the Misleading Metaphor of Digital vs. Physical


The rising wave of "Flat vs. Ornamental Design" discussions crested, beaching a bloated, skeuomorphic whale. Scavengers rushed in and cleaned the carcass, leaving us with a massive, white skeleton {border: 2px; color:gray}.

In all these discussions swims a fundamental misconception: the Digital vs. Physical metaphor – the belief that the realms of digital and physical are separate and opposed.

A quick google of "Flat Design" articles returns phrases like:

  • "the real world"
  • "life-like controls"
  • "the digital world"
  • "work with physical tools"
  • "imitate real world materials"
  • "borrow from physical objects"
  • "merge digital and physical design elements"
  • "the physical world plays into our digital experience"

Digital vs. Physical is an easy way to frame discussions about our binary frontier. It's also misleading.


To understand this, take another fundamental misconception: The Body vs. The Mind. A developing realization in various cognitive and linguistic communities is that the mind (thought, ideas, reason) is embodied. Stated by Lakoff and Johnson:

This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment.
–Philosophy in the Flesh (p. 4)

This premise challenges many embedded Western philosophies.

Just like the common misconception that the mind is separate from the body, I posit that the metaphor of Digital vs. Physical incorrectly separates digital from the physical components that are it's makeup.


In keeping with Lucas Rocha’s admonition to shift the discussion back to fundamentals, let’s establish our first premise: “Digital is Physical” as a jump off point.

To borrow from Lakoff and Johnson: this is not just the obvious claim that digital needs physical cables, access points and people to transist, but that the very structure of digital derives from these components.

Based on this premise, how now do we approach the topic of digital design (flat or otherwise)?

How now do we approach other digital topics: the internet, hyperboria, social networking, remote work, AI, IA, Bitcoin, patents, distribution, cyber-warfare, cellphones, drones... and on?

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