We deal with an amazing variety of different digital devices every day. We have computers, laptops, cellphones, tablets and readers — not to mention stuff we can’t see or hold that resides inside of TVs, cars and who knows where else.

There are bits of software residing in all of these things. For people who don’t rely on technology to make their business run better, there’s no real need to think about all of this digital stuff at all. They can simply turn it on and it works — it may as well be magic. Purchase decisions are based on cost, basic functionality, and sending the right social signals about the user’s status and beliefs.

For those of us who use digital stuff to make our business run better, it’s worth understanding how the ecosystem of digital stuff operates. Knowing how "digitalness" is expressed through tangible objects, intangible software and overarching technology themes gives us an advantage.

Understanding the relationships between digital stuff allows us to observe the tools of our craft more clearly. It’s like knowing — and appreciating — the difference between a socket wrench set and an adjustable crescent wrench.

We can make deeper, more effective use of digital stuff if we evaluate how useful it might be in context, comparing apples to apples. The decisions we make can be driven by more than social signals (or consciously driven by social signals).

As a first step, let’s put some categories around the different kinds of digital stuff out there and see how they relate. Let’s get really geeky and call it a taxonomy of digital stuff.

Hardware — the tangible digital stuff

Even though digital stuff is almost entirely focused on the shifting and sifting of ideas, there still needs to be a way for people existing in the real world to interact with those ideas. This happens through hardware.

Anything that your eyes see, or your hands hold, is a piece of hardware. Hardware allows us to accomplish several tasks:

  • input ideas
  • manipulate ideas
  • output ideas
  • store ideas
  • share or transfer ideas

Some pieces of hardware do all of these things — a laptop computer that has an Ethernet connection, for example. Some pieces of hardware are very specialized and do only one of these things — an external hard drive, for example.

Even though the five tasks of hardware listed above might seem simple, we know from experience that they aren’t. Not every piece of hardware that can do all five things is enjoyable or effective to use. This has to do with how the hardware relates to the other two categories of digital stuff.

Software — the intangible stuff

Software is simply the lines of code that give instructions to pieces of hardware to facilitate input, manipulation, output, storage or transfer. Most of us have used software that’s designed primarily for manipulation. We like a spreadsheet to manipulate numbers. We like a word processor to manipulate words.

With the rise of the Web we became very interested in software that deals with output, storage and transfer. We began to like software that would output our ideas into a website — Web publishing software.

Then we began to like software that not only output our ideas, but also handled a variety of specialized storage tasks — content management software. As social media began to rise, we became interested in software that could spread our ideas through the different social networks — social sharing plug-ins for our content management software.

The kinds of software that interests us depends on the tasks we’re trying to accomplish. Software, however, will be driven as much by relationships to the other two categories of digital stuff as by our specific needs and desires.

Technology — the really intangible stuff

Technology is a broad, overarching category for digital stuff. There are, of course, technologies that are completely unrelated to digital stuff. But in this column I’m focusing on the digital technology.

Technology contains the theories, laws of physics and hard sciences that simultaneously constrain the other two categories of digital stuff and allow them to bloom. At their core, technologies are simply ideas about what is possible within the five tasks and how the five tasks can be accomplished.

For example, we can share ideas through a multitude of digital technologies:

  • digital printing.
  • email.
  • file transfer over an Ethernet network.
  • file transfer over the Web.
  • asynchronous messaging.
  • real-time communication.

Which specific technology will be appropriate for us depends upon what we are hoping to accomplish, and is constrained or enhanced by our choice of software and hardware.

Software and hardware typically follow the lead of technology. New capabilities are developed as a somewhat amorphous technology first and then deployed specifically in hardware or software applications.

For example, near field communication (NFC) is a technology that allows for sharing of ideas at short distance. NFC gets deployed in cellphone hardware. NFC also gets deployed as software for choosing which sorts of ideas to send or receive. If the idea being sent or received is something like a credit card number, then additional security technologies get blended in.

The technology — in this case, near field communication — isn’t the hardware (the cellphone), nor is it the software (which lets you decide what is being shared). The technology is something different, allowing hardware and software to exist, and extending your ability to share ideas.

Technology will often be informed by developments in hardware or software, however. For example, when digital devices were the size of a room, there wasn’t much need or consideration for a near field sharing technology. But once equivalently powerful devices could fit in a pocket, the idea of wirelessly sharing ideas became interesting.

Technology also plays with the relative importance of the five different tasks. It can even add new tasks, though that happens very rarely. Different technologies mix, match and mash up the tasks in ways that are feasible to bake into software or hardware.

Of course, people influence technology as well. Right now, there’s a lot of interest in sharing ideas, so many technologies about sharing are being developed. At other times, there was a similar focus on technologies for manipulating ideas.

Using the three categories of digital stuff

By understanding the three categories of digital stuff — hardware, software and technology — you can make better decisions. You can make better decisions about what to use right now to solve a problem. You can make better decisions about what to look for in the future to solve a problem.

You can also, if you get really interested in watching these things, see how and where the future might develop. By watching where the deeper technologies are moving, shifting and developing, you can identify opportunities that will be available in the future as they filter down into hardware and software.

But in any event, remember simply that digital stuff is about shoveling ideas around. In order to do that you need some object to interact with, some code to handle the idea in the digital realm, and some technology to enable the thing to work.

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