Digital Hybrids


As pronounced by the Stanford University’s Symbolic Systems Program, “Computers are symbolic systems that use meaningful symbols to represent the world around them”.

Digital hybrid (Joseph Kosuth)

If that understanding seems to introduce a clear divide between actual and symbolic worlds, the distinction is only between business context and concerns on one hand, symbolic surrogates managed by systems on the other hand. As illustrated by selfies, the line may even be drawn in the sand considering that symbolic objects are not a systems prerogative, and systems do implement symbolic representations as physical binary objects.

Symbolic objects are not a systems prerogative, and systems implement symbolic representations as physical binary objects.
Symbolic objects are not a systems prerogative, and systems implement symbolic representations as physical binary objects.

Adding to the blur, business has to deal with objects like legal documents, icons, or works of arts which seem to straddle the margin between actual and symbolic identity.

Icons, works of art, or contracts combine actual and symbolic identity.

Finally, new technologies are rubbing out the lines between business environment and supporting systems, bringing to the fore the issue of hybrids fusing physical and symbolic identity.

Actual Matter of Things & Symbols

Individuals existing at the same time in business and system realms can be likened to the Schrödinger’s cat in quantum superposition, i.e in a state of being simultaneously alive and dead.

More practically, such hybrids are objects or phenomena uniquely identified independently of their actual situation:

  • When the basis of actuality is the symbolic content (e.g a contract), digital instances can be directly processed while keeping their conventional (i.e business) currency. By not being surrogates they can be created, updated, or deleted indifferently and simultaneously in their actual and symbolic life-span.
  • When the basis of actuality is the binary fabric (e.g signatures or works of art), the identity and authenticity of digital instances turning up in actual world has to be guaranteed by dedicated systems mechanisms.

In both cases actual and digital entities exist as a single hybrid that can be processed indifferently in either of its avatars, business or system. Such hybrids are not limited to the materialization of documents and can be found across the whole range of objects and phenomena:

  • Fac-simile: materialization of identified copies of a document.
  • Application: materialization of identified copies of an activity.
  • Software as a service: identified use of an activity.
  • On-line live event: shared and simultaneous occurrence of events.
  • Stream: shared process.
  • Sensor event: non shared events identified by active physical objects.
Objects and phenomena can exist simultaneously in business environments and systems.
Objects and phenomena can exist simultaneously in business environments and systems.

That introduce a clear distinction between hybrids and symbolic representations (aka surrogates), the former possibly identified on their own, the latter necessarily pointing to the actual objects or phenomenon meant to be represented.

It must also be noted that individuality doesn’t necessarily mean singleness: hybrids can be duplicated but, depending on identification mechanism, copies don’t necessarily receive a business identity.

Hybrids & Synchronization

The ubiquity of digital objects, which can exist simultaneously within and without the system, has direct consequences with regard to the synchronization of objects and activities.

On one hand the duality of hybrids makes the distinction, and consequently the synchronization, of business objects and their system surrogates irrelevant. On the other hand, it does the same for external and internal events, and consequently for “real-time” activities.

That can be illustrated by handshakes and contracts: traditional handshakes combines actual behaviors and symbolic bearings set once and for all in memories; but written contracts introduces a hiatus between contents and documentation. Businesses can do with the former alone, but if contract reification is to be of any use there must be some kind of system to process them and synchronize changes along time.

Taking the marketing of online media as example:

  • Media products like books or movies can be distributed as physical objects whose content is associated to a customary one. When sold, copies do not have to be managed, i.e represented by symbolic objects. While some recording is needed for media products rented on physical supports, symbolic representations stand for the support, not the contents.
  • Things are different with online media distribution, for sold as well as rented products. In that case the product in customer’s hands and its system representation form one and single object. As a corollary business transactions will then be akin to teleportation by which customers get and return (when rented) their product. Specific entry points will be necessary, together with a specific communication architecture.

Adding to the interweaving of symbolic and actual identities, the fusing of external and internal events leaves the two familiar distinctions between environment and systems in tatters. So could models entirely built from hybrids be likened to systems ?

From Predictive Models to “Digital Twins”

Hybrids artifacts may point to intriguing directions when set along trends like the Internet of Things (IoT) or 3D printing. To put it summarily, traditional predictive models would be replaced by ones entirely built from hybrids. As a consequence:

  • Instead of models simulating artifacts, it would be possible to operate actual duplicates.
  • That would enable seamless experimentation with design, production, and operations.
  • And all could be carried out in actual environments.

Further ahead, the fusing of actual fabric with symbolic specifications would open the door to Deep Learning and the integration of implicit and explicit knowledge.

Further Reading

External Links

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