Much of modern labor brings the abstract into socially valued products, the remainder providing direct services. Automobiles are designer's dreams long before we drive them. Smart phones existed in our imagination before technology was ready to support their physical reality*. Even services take knowledge and effort and collapse those down into measurable change.
In the realm of software development, everything is an abstraction
From digital currency, to personal health records, to social web updates, the digital analogs of data and services are symbols and interfaces. Structures in software serve as shared gateways to formatted information. The data referenced may be proxies for real world objects or digital statistics. The disconnect from the physical allows for massive archives of data as well as rapid reconfiguration. The ongoing collection of data requires refinement to become useful information, and new efficiencies in this process have enormous social value.
Let's not forget that our happy digital world of data has a never ending appetite for capacity and power. Computer systems require power, a safe environment, and maintenance. Networks require reliable connectivity. The data itself is stored as energy states or etched into physical media. As long as the above statements hold, there will be a close relationship between digital abstractions and the physical world which enables them.
The Social Need for Relevance Drives Refinement
Refinement of raw data and creative aggregation of processed information already happens in the absence of social need. We call these efforts art or research as they are apparently disconnected from paying customers ;). But the lion's share of refinement occurs because of current and predicted need. I've spent much time tuning and sorting my RSS reader and managing folks I follow on twitter/buzz and which lists to place information sources on. I've spent even more time reading and commenting back to authors who challenge my assumptions and inspire me. The relevance of a post is a fuzzy weighted score based on the recommender, the topic, the author, the channel, and related keywords connected to what I'm working on presently.
Just last night a good friend William Mougayar CEO of Eqentia, emailed me about an adaptive content web startup (synaptify) that overlaps conceptually with work we've done at Victus Media. The source, broad/specific topics, and channel were all strong signals of relevance. I'm already thinking about a user interface and tunable algorithms that can satisfy this need.
*= In an RPG I helped author and design Children of the Ark, "Globals" were postulated as ultra portable interstellar networked computers and came in a variety of personal shapes and formats.