By Farhad Anklesaria
Why digital content is not premium
People want their products to be like their jeans, which over time have the capacity to become ingenuously personalized and create an intransient sense of loyalty. As consumption has moved into a digital world, there is an increasing demand for digital products to mimic the aesthetic appeal of wear and tear. However, demand has not been met with supply, as designers have found it increasingly difficult to push premium into their digital products. This genre of products is indeed gifted with the unique qualities of being democratic, accessible, and always current. Ironically, however, these very qualities plague the genre with a serious case of value depletion—as they become abundant, they lose their sense of origin and become categorically generic. This coincides with people’s yearning for deeper relationships with the products they purchase.
The deep attraction of the imperfect
The Japanese have built their entire aesthetic around wabi-sabi, or the innate appeal of transience. Wabi has been translated as “the quirks arising from the process of construction,” which add uniqueness and elegance to an object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear. Taken together, wabi-sabi can be understood as the aesthetic of your favorite pair of shoes that are no longer new but whose scuffs and broken-in shape create a deep feeling of beauty and attachment. According to this philosophy, a lack of consideration for the integrity of natural processes of degredation radically depreciates the beauty of a product. In other words, it is a design crime for a producer to ignore how a product will age.
The poverty of “perfect” technology
Design crime has indeed been committed—and the technology sector is guilty. Technology is not being designed to age. On the contrary, devices and applications seem to have been designed with the ideal of eternal “newness” in mind, with no regard for the potential aesthetic appeal of wear and tear.
I like my wallet because I have witnessed the aging of the leather, my jeans have become more comfortable as they weathered naturally, and my notebook has acquired a character of its own. However, my Microsoft Word doesn’t signify the extensive usage of the “undo” button, my Skype doesn’t differentiate my most contacted contacts, and The Brother’s Karamazov on my Kindle doesn’t look like it has been carried around with me for the last two years. My technology looks the same as the moment that I bought it. People pride themselves over their extensive use of certain devices and programs. Why shouldn’t the technology be capable of exemplifying this feeling?
This gap in demand for this has, in a sense, been bridged by consumers who are buying leather covers for their iPads and Kindles. Blackberry designed their Bold device with a leather back. But weathering leather is merely a cover-up for what can potentially be an innovational space for design. Material aging of devices might be low-hanging fruit for producers and designers, but the (smart) aging of immaterial software will be more of a challenge, with a potentially larger payoff.
Example: Adding organic value to digital publishing
As the publishing industry goes through its phase of creative destruction, publishers could learn something valuable by looking at their favorite worn out pair of shoes. With content shifting rapidly from the physical to the digital realm, users are searching for elements of what they once treasured in the world of print. Newspapers can:
Be personalized like Facebook’s newsfeed.
Integrate symbols of expertise in a topic, like the different levels in World of Warcraft.
Show signs that an article has actually been read by you.
Digital content can brand itself as premium by integrating these qualities and accepting that in an era of Botox, aging could be the next premium.