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.