“Perhaps a first step, is in the simplification of life, in cutting out some of the distractions.”   
Anne Morrow Lindbergh on remaining balanced. Gift from the Sea, 1955

In a small brown and brittle second-hand paperback there is a small star scribbled in the margin beside that quote. It meant something to the person who put it there. Since that person meant something to me, I wonder what she was thinking, and what this meant to her? And why?

There are physical imprints on objects all around us that turn a simple object into a metaphysical experience. It has a value now that is not derived in a rational way. It becomes a treasure.

I noticed an ad for Bauman’s Rare Books that you can order special signed biographies of former presidents. My Life, signed by the hand of Bill Clinton, the autobiographer, is priced at $1,500. I’m sorry, but unless the president looked me in the eye, asked my name, signed it with a smelly sharpie and put it in my hand, it wouldn’t have anywhere near that value for me. The personal connection, memory or experience is where the value really gets imbued.

In a very different example of intangible value in analog objects, I have a few old lift tickets from significant ski days on the corkboard in my office: An opening day of November 11—my earliest so far! A closing day so warm no jacket was required. I still have vivid memories of the runs, the temperatures, the textures of the early- or late-season snow. Every time I look at them I am transported back to those days.

This same destination now has RFID tickets that I don’t even have to pull out of my pocket. Amazing—I can load it up online and walk onto the lift in a flash. A huge convenience. The problem is that I don’t have anything left to remember the days, and no token or souvenir to show off and retell the story.

I imagine that the magic and the memories are stored out of reach somewhere in the plastic encased chip. Just the same as if I had inherited an e-book instead of a well-used paperback from a parent: no marks, underlines, inscriptions or dog ears. I am so thankful that my mother inscribed every book and picture she gave me or my kids. Without knowing it, she turned a commodity into a priceless object each time.

Of course, I love my e-books and audiobooks, MP3s and digital photos, and I worry about what will replace the primitive but priceless marks we leave on their physical predecessors. I think about this when I look at a photo that has been liked, hearted or commented on online. The power of what is happening there is easy to miss, but it’s a great example that maybe this metaphysical effect can happen in the digital realm.

When the character Erica Albright in the movie The Social Network exclaimed, “The Internet's not written in pencil, Mark. It's written in ink.” I shuddered. But maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe we can figure out how to use some of that ink to imbue emotion and meaning into these intangible ones and zeros.

Give it a shot.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Winter 2012 - Yearbook of Design Excellence. 
Subscribe at www.idsa.org/innovation

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