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The Downside Of Living In A Digital World

Hurrah for digital media! We’ve got everything we ever wanted at our fingertips within a second or two — or maybe half an hour if we want it in 1080p. There’s just one thing that bothers me: What have we given up in return?

This particular line of thinking was inspired by some de-cluttering I was doing around the house, and in particular coming across a small cache of retail VHS tapes that were lurking under the house in a plastic box. Aside from pondering as to my earlier purchasing tastes — Tremors was and always will be a classic, Killer Klowns From Outer Space perhaps less so — it got me thinking about how functionally useless VHS tapes were for most people. Why yes, I do still own a (rather dusty) VHS player, but most people don’t, and if the combined efforts of things like iTunes and channel Bittorrent are to be believed, physical media is on a death slide, to be replaced with exclusively digital content.

There’s some great upsides to that right now. Media’s available on demand and in the way that I want it; the kinds of playlist-based streaming services exemplified by Spotify, for example, simply wouldn’t have been feasible in the VHS age, unless radio stations were willing to have personal DJs sitting in booths for every single listener.

There’s one huge difference between my dusty pile of VHS tapes (or for that matter my collection of Sega Saturn games, floppy disks with Windows 3.11 on them or shelf full of slightly yellowing Target Dr Who novels) and their digital equivalents. The physical media that I own is mine, outright and, as per current copyright law, pretty much mine to do with as I please, whether that’s to watch/read/play, sell or simply make a little fort out of when the weight of nasty comments gets too much for me.

Digital media makes lousy hiding forts — you need a huge stack of SDHC cards to even make an entryway — but the bigger issue there is that in every single important respect, anything digital that I “own”, I’m only really “renting” anyway, and that’s at best. Let’s take a look at a few examples, shall we?

I own a copy of Windows 7 — and to be clear here, it was a copy given to me by Microsoft for review purposes, but it’s a “full” retail copy in all respects. It’s installed on a desktop machine in my office… and that’s as far as it’ll ever go. I couldn’t do a whole lot with those Windows 3.11 floppies these days that’d be all that useful, but at least I could transfer it to a full new machine when the old one died. The copy of Windows 7 on that desktop is remarkably twitchy at the best of times; I recently changed the keyboard over and it insisted on validating again! To add insult to injury, it was a Microsoft keyboard I was changing to.

Hey, they make exceptionally good peripheral hardware; if the Natural Keyboard 4000 ever goes out of production, I fear my fingers may fall off out of sheer disgust — but I’m digressing.

OK, you might say, but not everyone plays the digital software game that way. Apple, for example, will let you install iOS Apps onto as many iOS devices as you’d care to plunk money down for, and Google’s got the same philosophy. Lose a device, or buy a new one, and you can add the apps you’ve already got to it. That’s great — as long as the apps remain available. Apple’s notably good at killing apps that either contravene its sometimes nebulous “guidelines”, and without a backup (and arguably a backup of a backup) of those apps, you can quickly lose access to software you’ve legitimately paid for. It’s not just Apple; I have a number of XBLA games on my 360 that no longer “exist” on the service; if my 360′s hard drive goes down, the games go with it. That highlights the other issue here; your software (and by extension, books, movies and music) are only good for as long as the service that supports them does.

Copyright gives me all sorts of rights when it comes to physical media. My bookshelves groan under the weight of books — and I do rather like my Kindle — but if I want to sell a single title, it’s much easier to do from the shelf; I’d have to sell the entire Kindle, and even then I suspect I’d be breaking Amazon’s terms and conditions in doing so. I’ve still got plenty of CDs kicking around, and I’m totally free to rip them to alternate and even future formats under Australian copyright law. I’ve only got the rights that the record companies (and their proxies, such as Apple) have deigned to give me with digital music, rather than the rights the law compels them to.

I could go on, but I think you see the point. It is genuinely great to be living in an age where digital media is widely available — but it’s not always quite the bargain it might seem to be.

Image: Rob Pearce