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Virtual reality: can a PDF be a hard copy?

Computer code

Recently I was asked to “send a hard copy” of a document to a colleague in New York. I am in Oxford, and knew they didn’t want me to send it by Airmail, but instead just wanted the PDF forwarding. This, however, struck me as strange—a hard copy is usually specifically a paper version of a document, as contrasted with a digital one.

So what is happening here? Why would a digital entity take the name of a paper document? I suspect the reason may lie with the cloud:

A network of remote servers hosted on the Internet and used to store, manage, and process data in place of local servers or personal computers.

For much of their history, computers have been complicated, mysterious machines, sufficiently complex that they were understandable by only an elite few. In their earliest days, using them involved learning machine code in order to give the computer instructions.

Hiding the inner workings

Initially computers were mainly used for scientific or business purposes, and so usability was not a priority. However, as the hardware became smaller and cheaper, and the idea of a home or personal computer became viable, ease of use started to become more important—not least because nobody would buy a computer if they couldn’t work out how to use it. Consequently, efforts were made to hide the inner workings of the computer, and present only a simplified user interface to the person using the machine.

The common command line interfaces, in which (relatively) simple text commands were used to give a computer instructions, were straightforward enough for many enthusiasts to get to grips with. However, they were regarded as still too complicated for many people, and so starting in the 1980s, began to be sold with graphical user interfaces (GUIs), in which a user could give the machine commands by manipulating visual elements on the screen.

Familiar objects: from folders to desktops

To make people feel at home, the elements of these GUIs were made to resemble and named after familiar objects from the home or workplace, in the hope that their use would be intuitive. So, documents and files were organised into folders, or placed on the desktop. They could be copied or cut to the clipboard, and subsequently pasted elsewhere. The original Apple Macintosh is perhaps the most famous early example of this.

Despite creating a virtual environment which had many analogies to the physical one, computers have remained notoriously difficult for the uninitiated to get to grips with, and so the trend towards hiding their inner workings continued. Mobile devices like the iPhone are no less computers than the tower PCs found in a typical office; however unlike desktop operating systems like Windows, you are unable to see the file structure on the disk.

Similarly, cloud services like Google’s Gmail and Apple’s iCloud do their best to conceal their inner workings. You are not supposed to see what’s going on with your data when you use these services; rather you should simply trust that it will be dealt with behind the scenes (which is not always the case).

Although these abstractions can make using a system easier, they can also remove a sense of control from the user. And so a distinction has started to take place between the abstract, virtual world of the cloud, and old-style files and folders, leading to uses of physical to describe things which are strictly anything but, as these real life examples show:

Have you tried looking at the physical file in My Computer / Finder?

In these OSes, you may have physical folders such as My Pictures and Public Pictures.

This is why I hate iPods. Why do you need a program to put music on it? Why can’t I drag and drop the physical files onto it?

You will have to go out of [Lightroom] to really delete the physical file.

The same goes for the aforementioned hard copy:

We will also email a hard copy form to you shortly.

Or even, on occasion, real itself can sometimes be used in this way:

I love Dropbox because having my real files sincronized [sic.] rather than links (i.e. Drive) across my devices is great.

A ‘search’ folder isn’t a real folder, it is a special folder that contains no data by itself and is used to hold the results of performed searches.

As control is taken away from people they have come to associate the old-style digital files and folders with their physical equivalents, in contrast with the nebulous virtual world of the cloud, and consequently language which was previously only used for concrete objects is now also used for their virtual counterparts.

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