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

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    Seems like the issue isn't the digital media itself - it's the DRM.

    I was recently looking through an external hard drive I had lying around. On that I found a backup of an old machine. Inside that backup was a backup of an older machine. I had digitally inceptioned my way back to 2001. The best bit was that all of the music I had obtained in 2001 still played just fine even though the 'source' I used was shut down by the RIAA

    Just one of the many reasons why 'alternate content sources' are so popular.

      This comment completely ignores the legality of any of it, which I believe was the major thrust of Alex's piece.

        My point was that I believe the issues caused by the legality are one of major factors of Digital Content not having the same longevity. DRM free MP3 files will still work in 100 years as long as you can decode them and I am sure an MP3 emulator isn't going to be hard to create.

        Also, you can get perfectly legal DRM free music. iTunes music is DRM free, and Bigpond music sells DRM free MP3 files.

          BPM sells MP3s alot cheaper then iTunes as well :) (well, mostly)

        but then again, most people here dont really care about legality - i know i dont.

    Yes and no -- you've still got to have machines that can read the digital code as well.

      True - but don't you also need the machine that can read the physical media? How long before you can no longer buy a video cassette player?

        Pretty much now, apparently the VHS/DVD combo's that are being sold are what's left over from manufacturing since they're not being made any longer. But there are always second hand places for such an item :)

          *Looks at my pile of working VHS players*... Goldmine!

    Are you sure current copy right law allows you to legally rip cds to other formats , i was always under the impression it wasn't overly legal just impossible to police

    either way this is a BIG issue coming into the next year or two in gaming especially as both sony and microsoft ready they're new console generation, sure enough they wont be simply walking away from the current generation but its not likely to be supported for more then a couple of years, so what will happen to all our digital wares then is the big question, do we get access to them again on the new services if they are available or will it be a case of "lets make more money by making them buy it again mwahaha"
    The other issue is he rampant rumors of digital only, which is highly unlikely in the next gen but stil raises serious issues

    the biggest annoyance to me atm is that NO ONE controls how long digital "things" need stay alive, theres no guarantees at all of any sort of lifespan, as you mentioned apple can and do take down apps all the time, but if you actually read the eula's for basically all digital content providers none have any sort of guaranteed life span and the governments of the world, especially ours with its supposed technology forward know how (NBN), are doing nothing, going back to games almost all gamers have a treasure trove of old consoles and classic games hidden away that they like to break out occasionally and play, considering the copy of minecraft 360 i brought yesterday has no promise of a tomorow i might not be abel to break it out for a session this afternoon never mind in 10 years time and id be completely powerless to try and do otherwise, and unfortunately until this all blows up in someones face who has a voice loud enough its not gonna change

      Even with proper care, physical media will eventually deteriorate to a point where it becomes unusable.

      And software reaches a point where it is no longer supported, granted we can still play old retro stuff through emulators and such, but in theory that may also apply to current gen stuff eventually too (as computer power gets bigger) as far as I know you can get these digital only games via "other means" now, whats to say 10 years down the track you wont be playing Minecraft 360 on an emulator (or maybe on an emulator inside the PC version of Minecraft ;) )

      In the end it comes down to digital only stuff will remain available till it isn't economically viable to keep it there, at which time the amount of people inconvenienced by it's removal will be pretty small anyway.

      And now I feel like dipping into my DOS game collection on my hard drive........... Ahh DosBox how I'm glad you exist.

        sure enough we may be able to play it on emulators but thats hardly the point , we are putting hard earned money for this content, that before the digital age you would then own forever, now you just own it until the provider decides they cant be bothered supporting it, and lets not forget emulators arent legal (broadly specifics need not apply) so saying that its a viable solution would mean that the provider would have to provide the emulator, which yes is viable but not likely and they might as well just keep supporting the original content

        and saying that physical media deteriorates over time anyway is also hardly the point, its the fact that we have the option to preserve what we own and paid for, for as long as possible that counts you cant do that "legally" with digital media

          I can preserve my digital content as well, As long as my Xbox Hard drive continues to work, and I have a functioning Xbox, I should be able to play most, if not all of the downloaded games on it. And I'm sure I could make an image of the drive in my PS3 that I could restore to another drive if it dies, preserving all the content on it.

          And I can backup all of my Steam Library to physical media if I considered my current existence to be not painful enough.

          Digital content can be preserved as well, after all, it is just some data on a disk. It just depends on the hardware to run it.

          It all comes down to one thing, you never own software you purchase, you merely purchase a license to use it.

            well i guess thats where DRM comes into it because you cant preserve games that require a connection to play, which is increasingly alot more games, ie diablo 3 a single player game backed up by always online services (and drm), blizzard will only keep those servers going for as long as they feel like it (profitable), when d3 came out 12 years after the first two, you could easily play your copies of 1 and 2 before getting 3 good luck in 12 years time playing 3 again before 4 LEGALLY, if anything blizzard would cash in by re-selling the game at a gouging price and you would have to rebuy it because theres no set lifespan governing that, this is my point

            (lets ignore the fact d3 is popular enough that 12 years running is not out of possibility )

              Because of the way it is setup I don't consider D3 to be a single player game, When playing by yourself you are just playing a coop game with 1 person, any of your friends can jump into that game at any time, so to me thats not true single player.

              DRM that requires a connection is just todays version of needing a code wheel, hardware dongle, or encycloalmanactionaryography (for the Dr Brain players out there ;) ) and most of them are cracked within hours of release anyway.

              Diablo is an exception to this because as far as I can tell, you actually play on the blizzard servers. It isn't just an authentication check.

              Internet based DRM should be patched out a few months to a year after release anyway in my opinion. It has no purpose once the game has been out for long enough.

      Yep; amendments to copyright law a few years back very specifically addressed the CD ripping issue; if you legitimately own the CD, you're entitled to format shift it for personal use only.

      It wasn't the case when the first iPod launched, and there was no iTunes store in Australia, which meant an awful lot of buyers were, technically, criminals.

        So are the ads on the front of movies with the one guy who pretends to be many delivering intentionally misleading information?

        Because they say, we've already bought them before, so why do we have to pay again.

          No, I think you've got that ad wrong.

          It's just that one guy, with his many weird accents and costumes, that's responsible for all the piracy in Australia.

        true sp or not you still wont be able to play it in shorter time then if it didnt have to be always online but you do get what you pay for there, you going knowing "more" in this case

        drm differs from the things you mention in the fact you dont and cant control drm like you could a hardware dongle, again legally your worse of, agree with the phasing out drm after time though that makes sense but nailing down that timespan is a hard one, must be more then a few months otherwise everyone would just wait :P

      Thats what the RIAA wants you to think. This has been tested in court. You have the right to make a digital copy of any program or media you own the rights to. This came out when Sony was trying to get mod chips banned in Australia. Their argument was that the mod chips were only used to play pirated content. The courts ruled that this may be so, but end users have the right to make a copy of the softare on the game CD to prevent the original game being damaged.

    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.

    Or for most Australians its more like half a day for 1080p because our internet here is terrible.

      Agreed; depends where you are. I did ponder writing that sentence as "a couple of hours", but then I knew the opposite side would turn up; somebody on cable (or living under an exchange) boasting they could get 1080p content in half an hour... In any case, this is 100% pure Australian content!

    Finally an article on the real problems with the "New Digital" world and whats really wrong with it .
    Like you refer to in your article "yellowing target DR Who novels" they're still the same read and experience and just as useable now, I wonder what future generations will think when they look back at our time and see very little left but short lived items if anything physical remains ?

      Exactly the reason I still buy DVDs etc, even if I have the didital files. Movies are so cheap now that it has little effect on my budget. Even buying older ones fron a Cash Converters for 2 bucks means I have a film on the shelf - a physical reference point for me and the family to browse.

        Movies are cheap?? 30 bucks isn't cheap...

    Alex is dead right, digital media gives us plenty of convenience but strips us of many rights we have always taken for granted. e.g. AFAIK, I cannot legally resell a Kindle book I have finished but I can get a few bucks for a second-hand paperback, which ultimately makes buying paper books cheaper than buying Kindle books. I can also legally borrow a book from a library, read it and return it for free or I can borrow and lend books between my acquaintances, however I have no legal right to loan anyone a Kindle book, unless I loan them my whole Kindle. Even then, they won't have the convenience of reading it on their phone or PC, the way I can.

    But it goes further than that, physical media gives you a lot more than the digital equivalent, especially when it comes to CDs. A CD comes with a booklet with all kinds of information about the artist and the album that you cannot get from iTunes or the Zune Marketplace. If you doubt me, then see if you can find out who Geordie thanks on the latest Killing Joke album, MMXII, without looking at the booklet that comes with the CD.

    There is also the aspect of a collection. I have 697 albums, EPs and singles by 286 artists on my hard-drive but my collection is of around 1000 CDs that are packed into boxes in storage. It is the CDs of which I am proud, not a bunch of files on a USB drive. It is even ore obvious with movies and TV shows. Comparatively few sheeple collected VHS tapes but most would have a DVD collection of some description. In my case, I had maybe 20 VHS movies and a similar amount of music video tapes but my DVD collection, whilst relatively small (less than 100) is something I am inordinately proud of, in that I feel it is an excellent collection that is "all killer, no filler". Obviously a lot of others also collect DVDs, so there must be a common element of creating a collection, else they would simply have hired the movies and returned them. I have no movies or TV shows stored on my computer. In the past I have been given stuff by others but inevitably I needed the disk space before I got around to watching any of it, so I ended up deleting the stuff. Files sizes makes digital movies/TV far less convenient for me than DVDs and I find the quality is also far too variable. At least modern DVD transfers are reliably good.

    I've never streamed music or films, to me that seems like the ultimate waste of money, especially on my 3G broadband where the bandwidth can be as expensive as the service itself.

    Another issue we have is insurance. If my hosue gets broken into and they steal my dvd collection, generally they will replace it. I have had this happen and I had photos that i had taken over a period of time that showed the collection existed.Try telling them that you had a hard drive with $5k worth of movies, music etc and make a claim for digital content will hear a long silence on the phone...

    Completely agree with you on the Natural Keyboard 4000 :)

    If you're concerned about rights you're missing the point. The point is that vast swathes of the richness of our culture are extremely fragile. It's always been that way of course - it's not as though every play held in the Globe was written down, or every Egyptian religious ceremony was inscribed in stone. We simply don't know about these things, because they were not preserved in some human-interpretable format.

    In my "ideal dream world" scenario, I look forward to having enough space of my own to store hardcopies of significant works both cultural and technological.

    Just to add my worthless 2 cents...

    Sure, it's digital media and it may or may not be supported later but....

    Download it, burn it to CD/DVD/Blu Ray....and you've got yourself a physical copy. It is legal, for any media although maybe not games, can't remember. Then you've got a backup in case "support is removed" or your net connection dies in the apocalypse or your HDD randomly explodes one day.

    I understand the point behind the article, but I think alot of it is our purchasing and/or backup habits these days. It's so easy to get digital content, we treat it like throw away stuff.

    My biggest issue with digital products (and in my case, its largely music) is the intangible sense of ownership.. I know ownership, in the point of Alex's article, is largely based around copyright, licensing and "do you really own it" but there is something so unsatisfying about paying $$ for something digital that only ever exists as 1's and 0's on some media device.
    Don't get me wrong, I pay for my digital wares and I think this tangible feeling is less for some things that others. For instance, computer software, l don't mind not having a boxed product but for music, books (and to a lesser extent movies) the lack of something physical has begun to feel like Ive just thrown my money into the ether.

    I call bullshit on Windows requiring re-activation after replacing the keyboard. The activation process just doesn't work that way.

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