Thinking About Physical Media in This Digital Age

Posted on February 6, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Music + Videos with 0

Thinking About Physical Media in This Digital Age

Album cover design, “Glass Houses” by Billy Joel.

While I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Abolish Physical Media Society since, oh, about the first time I saw a Sony eBook reader, I am of course of a certain generation. Which means that I grew up with physical media. And that I still have a hard time overcoming an internal desire to own and even collect such things.

And they are things. To be clear, by physical media I am referring to physical things: Books … made of paper. Musical recordings, TV shows and movies, games … distributed on plastic disc.

Today, and for the past decade or more or so, my media consumption has been largely digital. Books are electronic and stored in my Amazon Kindle account. TV shows and movies from a variety of sources—iTunes, Amazon, Microsoft and Google—all available from the cloud. Video games, too, all cloud-based purchases now.

I’ve argued, and continue to argue, that the advantages of digital media outweigh the disadvantages, though there are plenty of gray areas. My biggest concern at the time of this transition was the sheer amount of space required to house my enormous collections of books, CDs, and DVDs. Having moved back and forth between Boston and Phoenix in the 1990s, for example, we managed to ship an aircraft carrier’s worth of stuff across the country, twice, and at great expense, and I’m pretty almost none of it was ever needed during this time. But regardless of that, just having the space to store this stuff was getting problematic, and we had enormous bookshelves the lining the walls of multiple rooms, all stuffed past capacity.

There is something therapeutic about getting rid of this clutter, and while modern declutter experts like Marie Kondo have become rich preaching this way of life, I was on board with this stuff a long time ago. Our many bookshelves long ago whittled down to just one, and while it’s less than half full, and looking kind of lonely at the end of our upstairs hallway, it would be completely empty except for an oddity that is perhaps Casa Thurrott-specific: The only books on it now are the ones I’ve written over the past 20 years. And I’m getting ready to jettison those too.

I do love books. And while I’ve not been silly enough to rebuy all of my physical books in Kindle format, I have been silly enough to rebuy many of them, and to buy many new books in that format too. In fact, between Kindle and Audible, I probably own more books now than I ever did. It’s just that I’m hoarding them digitally, not physically. So I can’t really claim too much success here.

I grew up in an age—the very early 1980’s—when vinyl albums and singles, called 45s, were still available. And I bought a bunch of both. (My first album was Billy Joel’s “Glass Houses,” which I feel OK with today. But my first single purchase, the original “Stars on 45” medley, is more embarrassing, if somewhat offset by the fact that it’s basically a medley of Beatles songs.) When it came to album purchases, I had a rule: I needed to like at least three songs before I’d buy it.

In this age of compulsive digital purchases, such rules are hard to live by. I try to keep my collecting needs in check and purchase, for example, only those movies I know I’ll actually watch multiple times. The James Bond and Star Wars movies fall neatly into this category. But there are some real duds in my various digital collections, too, and all I can do now is shrug and explain, feebly, that they must have been on sale. A really good sale.

As with the books, we sold off or gave away most of the DVDs and VHS tapes we still had kicking around long ago, though we still have a distressing amount of DVDs and even a handful of Blu-Rays. (More on that in a moment.) And I still have my entire CD collection, now 30 years old—my first CDs, purchased together, were “Hysteria” by Def Leppard and “Desert Vision” by David Lanz and Paul Speer, and I stand by both choices still—in the basement, in boxes. And I know this because I just went through all of them last weekend.

I did that because my music collection has evolved even within the lifetime of this conversion to digital. And this is an interesting thing, when you think about it: For all the advantages of digital, content creators have still figured out ways for us to pay for the same content repeatedly. But instead of moving from vinyl to cassette to audio CD, we’ve moved from an era in which we ripped CDs to digital files and purchased music to one in which we subscribe to cloud-based collections of that same music.

Subscription services are a boon—30 million songs!—and a curse—you have to keep paying—but the biggest issue, I think, is that none of them are complete. That is, while any service—Microsoft Groove, Apple Music, Google Play Music, whatever—has tons of music, more than you or I will never need, none of them has everything. So I went diving into my old CDs to find music that isn’t in those collections so I could upload them and complete my own digital collections.

And that creates it’s own issues. Legally, I can’t rip that music and then give away or sell of the CDs, and I have in fact kept all of it. But that means I have boxes and boxes of CDs hidden away in the unfinished part of the basement. I think last weekend was the first time I had looked at them in over 10 years.

And for that same reason—that some content is just not available digitally—I actually buy new content in physical form from time to time. In the past month alone, I’ve purchased music (a Japan-only remastered version of Yes’ “Big Generator” album, the Corrs’ latest CD, which is not available in the USA) and videos (The restored Blu-Ray version of “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” correctly regarded as the worst movie ever made) in physical formats. In each case, I’ve digitized them, and then tossed the discs in the cellar, never to be touched again. (I haven’t purchased any paper books—what I think of as “book books”—so far in 2016. But it’s only a matter of time. There’s no digitization attempt there, of course.)

So the hoarding stuff remains problematic. Also problematic is the transition between formats, which so far has been felt most obviously with video. Ten years ago, ripping a DVD movie to H.264 felt futuristic, but those 480p files are laughably low-quality today. And while 1080p HD TV shows and movies look great on my PCs and television, a coming generation of 4K content is sure to trigger a “need” to replace my James Bond and Star Wars collections yet again. (I’m pretty sure I personally financed George Lucas’ entire life, having purchased the Star Wars movies at least a dozen times in various physical and digital formats over the years.)

This will become an issue with music soon, too, with Apple and others expected to introduce mainstream “HD” audio. It’s hard to say how books make this leap, but if Amazon and Apple stay true to form, they’ll find a way, and I can do the same for the “Lord of Rings” books that I’ve done for Star Wars. Maybe they could figure out a way to make a Kindle smell like a freshly-made paper book when you open a new title. Hmmm. Paper and ink: The hot new candle scent of 2016.

The biggest complaint about digital is that this stuff is ephemeral and has no lasting value. I can’t easily transfer ownership of most of this stuff to anyone else, for example, so there won’t be some future yard sale where I sell off my digitally-owned content. Subscription content is even more ephemeral, if that’s even possible. Even I don’t “own” it.

But the weirdest thing about all this is how much hasn’t changed. Yes, I’ve saved a lot of shelf space, and in the process removed what I always though of as tinder for an imaged future house fire. But the move to digital, for me at least, hasn’t helped overcome my compulsive desire to “own” or “collect” content. If anything, it’s made that easier. And while I can’t gaze lovingly at walls full of books, CDs, or DVDs anymore, I can instead bring up an endless supply of content on my home server–now a NAS device—from a Roku in my living room. It’s not the same. But in many ways it’s exactly the same.

Maybe it’s time to break out those photo albums. I have boxes full of them in the basement too.