On How Digital is Ruining Discovery

May 30 2012

Dig­i­tal music, movies, and books are easy to search through, cat­e­go­rize and cou­pled with com­plex algo­rithms, web­sites can show you related items you may like. On your phone (one of many devices) you may have sev­eral hours of music and movies span­ning sev­eral dif­fer­ent genres, and you might even own a device or two for your books and mag­a­zines.

Stor­age tech­nol­ogy is fan­tas­tic, and it allows us to carry and archive an enor­mous amount of data. I, along with every­one whose work revolves around the dig­i­tal, heav­ily depend on the abil­ity to effi­ciently save work, with­out taking up any extra phys­i­cal room. 

Although this tech­nol­ogy isn’t going away any time soon (maybe never), there is an incred­i­ble draw­back that will affect this gen­er­a­tions’ chil­dren and their chil­dren: the dig­i­tal age is ruin­ing the nat­ural dis­cov­ery of phys­i­cal media.

Grow­ing up, we kept a lot of old stuff. Photos, videos (home videos and movies), books, and record albums. My room in par­tic­u­lar was large enough so that some of this was kept in there, and when I even­tu­ally got around to clean­ing my messes up, I would dis­cover a world that might as well been ancient Egypt.

I would find books from when I was a young­ster and when my par­ents were a young mar­ried couple. One night in par­tic­u­lar, I found an old book while clean­ing up, and I read it until I fin­ished it the next morn­ing. I dis­cov­ered some­thing unex­pected, and it grabbed my atten­tion and didn’t let go. Other times I dis­cov­ered The Great Gatsby, Death of a Sales­men, and The Man of Bronze, which is how I devel­oped a man crush on Doc Savage.

At least in our home, photos were the same way. You see kids, before dig­i­tal photos, Insta­gram, and Face­book you had to order prints of your photos. Our family usu­ally ordered two of every photo in case we wanted to give one away. I vividly remem­ber stand­ing at the photo department’s counter flip­ping through 48 photos (24 expo­sures x 2) to ensure all were in focus, not double-exposed, so on. When we got home, we placed the photos (wrapped in their paper enve­lope) in a cab­i­net in the living room, and that’s where they stayed. When we would do intense clean­ing a few times a year, either my sis­ters or I would open that cab­i­net and spend a few hours going through old photos of our­selves. Who’s this?” we’d yell over the vacuum cleaner when we didn’t rec­og­nize a dis­tant rel­a­tive.

I could say the same thing about movies and music as well. Find­ing an album with inter­est­ing visual art would result in play­ing a few min­utes of scratchy clas­sic rock, and find­ing an old home movie of baby Court­ney telling a hilar­i­ous joke would give us a few min­utes of stom­ach-aching laugh­ter. Those dis­cov­er­ies are some of my favorite expe­ri­ences grow­ing up.

Unfor­tu­nately, these expe­ri­ences will not be the same for our chil­dren. When we no longer want that Nick­el­back album (we’ve all had one or two, don’t lie) we delete it from our hard drive. It’s gone for­ever. Our kids won’t be able to acci­den­tally find an old box of ter­ri­ble pop music and be mys­ti­fied by Chad Kroeger’s heart­felt ser­e­nades.

Our dig­i­tal cul­ture is about orga­ni­za­tion, search, and inten­tional brows­ing. Music goes in this folder. Movies go in that one. Photos are here, and pub­li­ca­tions are there. If you wander from the system, you’ll bump into the You May Also Like This” or Related Items” sec­tion to rein you back into the labyrinth.

With ser­vices (prod­ucts?) like Net­flix, Pan­dora, and Spo­tify, not only do we not have a file on our hard drive, we are simply rent­ing the dig­i­tal ver­sion. Of course, you can buy it, but why would you? In only a few clicks, you can have it stream­ing to your brain again.

One could argue that dig­i­tal things are easier to archive than their phys­i­cal coun­ter­parts, and I would tend to agree. Put 100 books on your Kindle, done. Drag and drop. If you want to add more, no prob­lem. With phys­i­cal items, you have to use phys­i­cal space. Need to archive 100 books? You need the shelf space, but is the need for phys­i­cal space such a bad thing? We also take up phys­i­cal space exactly like the things we so des­per­ately wish to dig­i­tally archive.

If your kids are able to access the files on your Firewire/​USB Hard Drive or Drop­box in 10 years (pro­vided it hasn’t been cor­rupted), dis­cov­er­ing your old media will be a click (or a tap) on the folder. That isn’t dis­cov­ery, that’s inten­tion­ally search­ing for Mom and Dad’s old crap. Dig­i­tal antiquing, if you will. Maybe this arti­cle is the begin­nings of my back in my day” stage.

As our world slowly gives way to cheaper, more orga­nized dig­i­tal media, I, for one, will miss dis­cov­er­ing media the old-fash­ioned way: trip­ping over it.