A curious notion has been swilling around in my head for some time now regarding “our” relationship with the physical media I love so much. Were it not for the books, CDs, DVDs, computer games, photo albums and vinyl records (yes, VINYL!) there would be so much more space in my house. I’m very attached to this stuff, and it got me thinking about the brave new digital world we’re living in now.
My good friend Rich did one of the most brave and awe-inspiring things I can think of a while back. He jacked in his job, sold his house and waved goodbye to almost all his worldly possessions – and then upped sticks to the other side of the world.
Whilst I am incredibly impressed with this exciting (and slightly extreme) take on downsizing, I was thinking the other day that I don’t think I could be without all my “stuff”. However, I constantly think we have far too much of it, and that it could be streamlined and much better organized.
I’ve ripped nearly my entire 300-strong CD collection into iTunes, so why don’t I just sell/donate/bin the discs? Surely I don’t need them any more? They’re just taking up room?
I could buy a huge hard-drive, rip my huge DVD collection as DiVX movies and then ditch all the discs that are filling a floor-to-ceiling set of shelves next to me as I type this.
All the books in the house have been read over and over – surely we could donate them to a library?
As for the vinyl – I must be living in the dark ages.
But no. It’s not going to happen, for two (maybe more) reasons.
1) I like having this stuff. “Physical” items are reassuringly real and tangible. Files on a computer just don’t seem the same. The feel of the pages, the colourful artwork, the fidelity of the sound and pictures. It all adds up to something quite distinct, and something that I really enjoy.
2) What if you DO ditch all this stuff, and then – god forbid – something happened to the backups? Hard drives fail all the time. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m fairly anal with my backup routine, but there’s a nagging (irrational) voice at the back of my head saying “but what if the backup failed as well?!? Had you thought of that?”
The thing that’s really been making me think, though, is that – for me – the ownership experience is just evaporating. I used to cherish going out and buying an album or a DVD that I had been looking forward to for months. I knew the release date well in advance, and the expectation was something to be cherished. I realise that we’re only talking about relatively cheap items, but I selected my purchases with care. DVDs were always released on a Monday, and I’d even go so far as to pre-order items because I knew other people coveted these things as much as I did, and not to get my hands on them on release day would be sacrilege. I knew exactly when the “2-disc director’s cut special collector’s edition DVD with remastered footage, DTS sound and all the extras” was going to hit the shops, and I’d make the pilgrimage into town during my lunch hour to get it. I’d get back to work and occasionally take the sacred item out of its carrier bag and look at it, even going as far as to open the cellophane packaging so that I could wonder at the gatefold packaging and inlay cards.
Now I realise that you can still buy these things in real high-street shops, but I just don’t any more. Whilst I enjoy/enjoyed the “retail” experience, I’m not so attached to it that I can afford to burn money. Internet retailers undercut prices by massive margins – why would you spend an extra fiver just so you could have the item in your possession on “release day”. Just stick your order in on the website, and in a few days your faceless postie will manhandle a scruffy jiffy bag through your letterbox. You probably won’t even bother opening it straight away.
We’re so inundated with “stuff” these days that it’s impossible to keep track of it. Who knows when that new album’s being released, and honestly, who cares? And, as the volume increases, the quality goes down. Do manufacturers put the care and attention to detail into their releases these days? Do they hell. Stick the disc in a box and shovel it out as cheap as possible. No-one really cares these days. Better still, make it a digital download and we don’t even have to worry about a box.
“Back in the day” there would only be one major DVD being released on the hallowed Monday, or computer game on the Friday. Now you don’t know where to look – JUST TOO MUCH STUFF.
As far as I can tell – to my mind at least – there’s only one retail experience that still lives up to my rose-tinted view of the world, and that’s console releases. They still are real events. Witness the queues at midnight, the frenzied pre-ordering, the internet “unboxing” photographs. Ordering on the internet doesn’t gain you anything – prices are fixed, and delivery will take positively AGES.
Funnily enough, the best products that still live up to my peculiar ideal recently have all been made by Nintendo. First there was the Gameboy Advance, then the Gamecube, then the Gameboy Advance SP, then the DS, the DS Lite and the Wii. I watched their development with feverish excitement, consuming every last bit of news I could get my hands on, then got excited when the release date was announced. I pre-ordered as soon as I could, and then the day would come where you I walk into a shop, slap the cash down on the counter and walk out with a real, tangible item that I had just bought there and then. Take it home, set it up – marvel at its shinyness. Bliss. But saying that, even hardware isn’t that exciting any more – it’s just a means to an end.
Quite honestly, the “ownership experience” is going, if not already gone. Digital downloads, streaming media and BitTorrent – why would you need anything else? The youth of today measure their musical and cinematic appreciation in how many gigabytes they’ve got, not whether it’s actually any good – both in terms of content AND quality. Will they ever understand or appreciate the wonder of buying, owning and using something “real”? I doubt it. The physical world is dead. Jack in grandad, and shut up.