The downtown Palo Alto landmark, Mills The Florist, prides itself for being in business since 1903. They sell fresh, colorful flowers and arrange them in outstanding bouquets. Their roses may be pricey, but they make a far better impression than Safeway roses. Husbands, take note of this sentence, you may think your wives can't tell the difference, but they can. Jokes aside, I wonder though, will this store that has seen a hundred years of business in silicon valley, be around for another twenty?
Before we go forward twenty years, lets go back ten. Around this time, Nicholas Negroponte had published his wonderful book Being Digital. He was the first person to popularize the concept of going "from atoms to bits". The theme of the book was that, information, represented in atoms, need no such embodiment, they could be represented in bits. Using bits is more accurate, faster to distribute, and longer lasting.
Atoms in the stone of the statue of David cannot be represented in bits, the arrangement of those atoms is what makes it worth looking at. The atoms in a piece of paper with writing on it, has no value other than the information it carries, and that can be turned in to bits, eliminating any need for atoms (I don't want to carry this analogy too far, on a hard disk, information is still in atoms). And the impact from going from atoms to bits massively impacted our society. If I were to pick three big effects, it would be in mail, music and photography.
Paper mail is replaced by email, photography has gone digital, and records/CD's are now mp3s. In all these cases, the atoms were completely worthless in their own merit. All of the instances where the atoms that embody information are not worth much on their own, have and will disappear over time. So far there are no surprises here, most of what I've said is known. But what's next? What's next to go from atoms to bits?
What about an object whose atoms contain some ephemeral value, but value that is tiny compared to the value of the information it embodies? Can those be next in line to disappear?
The object I have in mind is a flower. Because a cut flower is another, albeit subtle, embodiment of information.
Yes, they are beautiful, but they disappear in a short period of time. No trace of them is left. Not all have an aroma, and those that do, have it for only a while. It disappears also. However, the information they carry is immense. They show that somebody took the effort to get them, they show that somebody is thinking of another, that somebody wants to spend money for another, and most importantly they show that someone loves another. All that is great information, but information nonetheless.
I am talking about virtual flowers replacing those flowers, just like email replaced paper mail.
Virtual flowers can, and will, one day be beautiful, just as rare, and far more expensive. They surely will convey the same sort of information that real flowers exist to do. They will never smell as good, and feel as good to touch, but will that benefit one day be outweighed by the fact that, virtual flowers can last far longer, be much easier to maintain, distribute and share? How about the fact that a girl that receives virtual flowers from that special somebody, can take those flowers wherever she goes, share with her friends instantly, and tag, document/put in a diary? Will that flower be more valuable to her?
Most of you will read this and say "no way. A virtual flower will never replace a real one!". That's true for us, because we grew up with it. What about our daughters and sons who are growing up playing with virtual goods? Mine certainly are, just go here to see one of her homepages. Surely they will see things a little differently than us. Will real flowers mean the same to them? Now, do you still say "no way?" I didn't think so.
As I was thinking of this post, I was holding my 5 month old daughter, she was looking at me trying to figure out whether the shirt I was wearing was one she had not yet spit on (she has a clean 100% hit rate). I wonder if many years from now, she'll be telling me: "Dad, I love that you got me flowers, but why do you keep getting me real flowers? I don't have any vases, they go bad so quickly, and I can't show them to my friends far away. Wouldn't it be better if you spent the same money on a virtual flower I can keep anywhere, put in my electronic diary. Also dad, you won't be causing the loss of rainforest land to grow flowers. We need to save the planet."
There you have it, a virtual flower and a lesson in environmentalism bundled in one.
Now do you understand my concern for the second century of Mills The Florist?
P.S. I have a question for those who've read so far. What else, like flowers, have small value in its atoms relative to the value of the information they contain?