Tuned In

Something to Hold On To: Will You Miss Your Discs and Tapes?

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David Carr, damn him, has beaten me to writing about something I’d been thinking about for a while: the gradual disappearance of DVDs, CDs and sundry other physical artifacts that exist only to store media. With the spread of broadband, downloading, on-demand and other straight-to-you applications, the idea of buying an actual artifact to take possession of the 0s and 1s stored thereon may go the way of the wax cylinder. As he quotes NYU new-media scholar Clay Shirky, “The need to hold media that you consume—the physical purchase—is going away.”

So: Is this a happy or sad thing?

In general, I like the idea of being unencumbered as much as possible. When I was a teenager, I once predicted to a friend that in the future there would be no albums or videotapes, just a giant computer at the core of the Earth that would hold all the media there was, and you would rent access to it. (OK, iTunes doesn’t quite work that way, and I didn’t quite get the whole distributed computing thing, but give me at least partial credit.)

As for the whole business of going to a music or video store—honestly, I’m misanthropic enough not to miss it, despite my misty youthful memories of flipping through used-record bins at Wazoo in Ann Arbor. Maybe it’s a growing-old thing: going places is just a pain. And while browsing online is a different experience from rifling through a rack of CDs, it’s not really as though the music and video buying experience is less social. If anything—with the networks of like-minded customers and recommendations at sites from Amazon to indie eMusic—it’s more social, and more organically so, than seeking advice from some hipper-than-thou music store clerk or Tarantinophilic video guru.

That’s me, though. The one area where I do feel a real sense of loss is in my kids’ experience. The Tuned In Jrs. were born just on the cusp of the physical-media and the downloading eras and are just old enough to notice the transition. Where we used to buy CDs that they could pick up and stick in a machine that would play them, we now download songs that they (or I) need to scan for on the computer or iPod.

And just recently, our local video store closed down, presumably a victim of Netflix and downloading. For a grownup like me, going to the video store is a hassle I can do without. But especially for Tuned In Jr. Jr., it was a holy pilgrimage that produced ecstasy, even if he would end it by choosing a Scooby-Doo video he had seen a dozen times before. He could roam down a video aisle and pick out something himself; once you have to browse online, he needs a grown-up’s help. Likewise, with a CD, he could very early on find a familiar disc, put it in a stereo himself, and pick a song that he had memorized by number. On an iPod, the same task requires not only more manual dexterity, but reading.

Three years old, and already burned by platform transitions in the entertainment industry!

Yeah, I know: better for a kid to have to suffer through that than, say, polio. Still, even as a download-o-phile, I can better understand now why it is that technology changes so deeply disturb some people. A significant framework you had for interacting with the world is gone, forever, and something else has taken its place. And whether or not you liked the old thing better—whether you loved that old, depressing Hollywood Video branch—is irrelevant.

Of course, then, there’s also the old-fashioned reason to mourn old media’s passing: because it makes you feel old. Eight-tracks were already dated by the time I started buying music as a kid, but we had a player at home, and a few of my earliest album purchases were used or close-out eight-tracks I got on deep discount. Last week, I went to a movie screening for work, and one of my colleagues had brought with her, for some reason, and old Carole King eight-track. When we showed it to a curious twentysomething sitting next to us, it was as if we were showing her a bag of wriggling leeches and explaining that we used to use them to drain the body of ill humours.

OK, I’m going to stop, because I really sound like a sad old man. But back to the original question: CDs and DVDs—tearful farewell, or good riddance?