Moving, Reading, and Digital Media

Google Infinite Bookshelf
The experimental digital bookshelf developed by Google.

I just moved into a new house. We bought it, first time homeowners. After having moved multiple times in my 20s, I decided I would spend the money to hire professional movers to handle the furniture and heavier boxes. It went off so smoothly, I was literally stunned. They arrived at 8am and by 11:30am everything was in the new house and unloaded off their truck. Yet, somehow I still ended up pulling a muscle in my neck (I blame unhooking some very tight washer hoses).

One thing we did before moving was sell off most of our books and DVDs. Once upon a time, I was a rabid collector of physical media. I used to go into bookstores and have an almost euphoric and disorienting haze come over me, being unable to recall a single title or author I might look for. I started keeping a piece of notebook paper folded up in my wallet with these names in case I happened to go into a bookstore. When I was in college, we would regularly visit the local Blockbuster and pour through their cheap DVD selection, growing my collection by dropping $100 a trip. Once I was out of college, I hit some hard times and sold off most of my DVDs for some coin to buy groceries with. Slowly but surely they whittled down.

Now, I only have a very minimal collection of things I consider fairly obscure: Seasons 1 & 2 of Frisky Dingo, Wainy Days, Seasons 1 & 2 of Upright Citizens Brigade, and so on. Mostly things that aren’t easily accessible on the streaming platforms I subscribe to. I no longer own many physical comic books and my weekly reading is done purely digital. For literature, I mostly read off the Kindle app on my iPad and only buy a physical book if I don’t have a digital option.

Throughout my graduate school days and into the present I still hear people bemoan this shift from physical to digital. Whether it be with movies, books, music, or anything else you can find someone who is slightly saddened by a decrease in the tangible. I remember sitting in the Writing Center where I worked at my university, where freshmen came to have their papers critiqued and revised, and having conversations with a couple fellow tutors who were totally against the idea of reading off a screen. Having been through an involuntarily move that forced by books into storage I was on the side of the digital. Their arguments touched on the sensory aspects of a physical literature mostly (feel, smell). I have begun to think of this as the fetish-zation of physical media. The same way a music lover might wax poetic about the groves on a vinyl record, so does the book lover talk in erotic tones about the smell of a used bookstore and the crack of a hardback spine. I personally just don’t get much from those sensory experiences.

Digital means a few different things to me. Because of my personal experiences moving so often I felt that my physical books were either not accessible or a burden I had to think about when going from place to place. Since I got my first iPad and started reading digitally reading and literature feeling freer to me. I can carry my whole library around with me no matter where I go. I can stream movies where ever I have a connection and I can sideload video files onto my devices for watching whenever I choose.

In a world where we have to become increasingly more aware of our impact the environment, moving from printed paper texts to digital ones seems like a necessity. I admit I haven’t researched the carbon impact of a tablet computer versus analog media, but I would have to think that over time the digital option is more environmentally friendly. It also takes less space on a planet that is becoming increasingly overcrowded. Being able to compress media is one way we create more space for each other and our environment.

Digital media is also revolutionary is what it can do for developing countries. Distributing books to people in rural, poor areas through pre-loaded devices would be easier in a digital format. In the same way I would have been able to move my library throughout my 20s if it had been digital, I can imagine how helpful it would be for refugees to hold onto their books despite having to leave their homes. Add in digital photos as a way for them to preserve memories instead of the sad reality of leaving physical photo albums behind when you don’t have time to pack up your life.

There’s a lot of fears around dropping physical media that are very valid. The infamous case of Amazon wiping DRM copies of 1984 off users Kindles rang as one of the most ironic thing our culture has experienced. DRM should be a major concern for digital users. It’s the one great hurdle to making digital media a universal form of the free exchange of information. This ties into copyright law which transcends the digital and affects all forms of media currently.

The future is always uncertain. But I feel very passionate and sure that the future of media lies in the virtual world. The ability to compress an entire library into a single handheld device is one of the most revolutionary things humankind has accomplished. My generation and the next will likely be the transitioners, but in handful of decades reading on screen will be the norm. Like vinyl, there will always be a niche market for physical books, but the way to open the doors of communication across the globe will be in how we develop digital literature.

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