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Why I’m Going to Miss Physical Media

Late on a Friday evening I found myself blissfully planted in the periodical section of a large entertainment store. Magazines offering thoughts on the Apple iPad were too numerous to avoid, so I picked one up (which felt like popping in a cassette tape to hear a speech on the merits of Compact Discs.) When I looked up from the article I was struck with the notion that I was standing amidst a quaint memory — a tale of books made from trees, and shiny discs containing sights and sounds, as told by a rambling grandfather of the future. The massive building that contained me, as well as its aisles brimming with products, will all be gone very soon.

Imagine the gas we’ll save once all of our entertainment is being transferred through invisible beams in the sky. Consider the environmental impact that will be spared when we do away with cheap plastic cases and foil-stamped slip covers. Plus, our life expectancy will actually increase once we eliminate the stress that comes in attempting to remove those impossible triple-sided security stickers.

Well, I wouldn’t want to halt this progression, but I’m just starting to realize what this change is going to mean. To an amusement junkie like me, the process of hunting and gathering entertainment has become a significant and often enjoyable part of the overall experience. Many people won’t, but I’m going to miss getting physically lost in rows of films, music, books, and video games in those ugly super stores. I’ll miss grabbing a stack of magazines and scoring one of the comfy chairs in Barnes & Noble. I already miss record shops — even the smell of patchouli. Gabbing with a friend over the new releases can never be replaced with clickable screens of tiny JPG album art. And staying up ’til midnight to hit the download button will never compare to a fanatic-infested midnight release party.

I’m also going to miss the tangible incarnations of print, films, video games, and music, though the pros and cons are somewhat balanced. Physical media demands acres of square feet of our dwellings, but whenever I visit someone’s home I instantly gravitate to their bookshelf or DVD rack for an enlightening snapshot of their tastes. (Then I locate the weakest entry and I mock it.) Handling stacks of discs can certainly be laborious; however, sorting one’s collection can also be therapeutic (see the movie “High Fidelity”). Lack of packaging and transportation expense can amount to lower prices, but you can’t beat borrowing a game from a friend. Lending digital copies is certainly more convenient, but one must always consider a certain pesky federal bureau.

I already miss CDs — sort of. Whenever my childhood friends and I imagined the future we always seemed to land on the idea that small cubes would contain our music. We weren’t that far off, except it’s just one big cube attached to a screen and a keyboard. Though we are years deep into MP3s, I still don’t feel quite as satisfied buying a digital download. I know it’s an old man’s mentality, but without an object in hand part of my brain thinks that I just paid for nothing. Scratched CDs were always a bummer, but a dropped hard drive can mean the loss of a vast musical archive. One thing is for sure: A drag-and-drop playlist will always trump programming my six-disc CD changer.

I’m going to miss DVDs — somewhat. Oh, I’ve got issues aplenty with them. I could do without searching for the case for Seinfeld volume 5/season 6/disc 3, and sliding it into the box which then must be pushed into the slipcover before it all goes back in the slot on the dusty shelf. Did you ever see the first DVD release of the “Alien Quadrilogy??” You literally need five feet of floor space to unroll it far enough to access that last disc of bonus material. And I look forward to the day when all 117 of my Brady Bunch episodes are listed on a screen akin to iTunes, instead of strewn across 40 DVDs. Only then will I stop cursing the moron who neglected to put a “play all” function on my “Twilight Zone” discs.

But I fondly recall the earliest years of the twenty-first century when the DVD revolution was in full force. Every week one of my favorite films made the leap into the digital realm with its proper aspect ratio intact, and with deleted scenes to boot. (Some even sported animated menus!) Thus, on each and every “new release Tuesday,” my friend Jon and I made the same talkative, 45-minute trip to Best Buy with our Reward Zone cards in pocket. Afterward we cracked open the shrink wrap at a table in the nearby Waffle House. Nowadays many months can pass without even one celebration of that caliber.

I’m going to miss Netflix, too. Not “watch instantly,” of course; everything will be instantly watchable soon (that is, assuming your web connection is up). The thing I’ll miss is getting DVDs in the mail. Even now it almost feels stupid to stuff a disc into a paper envelope before walking it across the dew-soaked lawn to the mailbox. But before Netflix, the act of getting the mail was about 80% less joyful. (And before eBay, it was nothing but a chore.) Those red envelopes never fail to provide a little burst of mid-morning dopamine, and it’s always the first thing I open. I’m choosing to ignore those times when the sleeve has contained a handful of prismatic shards.

I already miss video rental shops — sort of. I don’t deny that they are toxic places stocked with broken cases full of scarred discs and un-rewound VHS tapes. I don’t appreciate absurd late fees, the return trip to the store, or paying eighty dollars for a lost tape of Sylvester Stallone’s “Lock Up.” But Cinema Video was a major part of my Friday night ritual for nearly two decades. As a teen it was a haven for legalized loitering. It has always been a place to run into friends and chat about movies over free popcorn. The New Releases were inevitably picked over, but this forced me into the catacombs of catalog films which caused me to discover all sorts of cinematic joys and curiosities. It also explains why I’ve seen “Gymkata.”

And then there are books. Certainly the format will always endure in some capacity, but the heaviest, bulkiest, costliest of all information containers will definitely take a hit. I will miss walls of colorful shelves, but I won’t miss carrying boxes of my friends’ books when I help them move. I think I’ll miss turning pages, but not paper cuts. What I’ll miss most about books is smell of old ones.

Speaking of which, what about libraries? I fear that libraries as we know them will be reserved for major cities while the rest morph into free internet portals; it’s just an economic reality. Eighteen dollars can currently buy a bundle of one hundred classic books for the Nintendo DS. Never before have we had the power to send a grade-schooler to class with such a library in their pocket. Consequently, it has never been easier for a child to lose, submerge, or ignore so much great literature in one fell swoop.

A world without paper books seems impossible, yet magazines are already paving the way into cyberspace. As a kid, the only thing that redeemed my family’s tedious weekly trip to the grocery store was the magazine rack where I grabbed the latest copy of Cracked (hey, I thought Mad was copying them) and blissfully planted myself until Mom’s cart grew full. Today, Cracked is exclusively a web site and its printed counterpart is but a quaint memory, as told by a rambling writer of the future.

- Kirk Demarais

PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR

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8 Comments »

  1. I just got rid of a ton of VHS tapes with “rare” stuff on them when I realized it was all available on Youtube or some other video site.

    Plus, I don’t own a VCR. How can I keep a media storage device if I don’t even own the means to play it?!?

    Sigh.

  2. I’m in the same boat, David. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of my original taped-off-the-TV episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” All forty pounds of them.

  3. La la la – I don’t want to hear it, things aren’t going to change – la la la….

    (And to me, MST3K on VHS = Joel. Loveable, stoned Joel. Mike is great, but in my mind he will never quite beat the original face of the Satellite of Love.)

  4. I think the thing I’ll miss the most is the hunt. Finding that one movie to rent in a video store, looking through huge bins of discount DVDs at Big Lots, or picking through used CD stores. It’s such a psychologically fulfilling part of collecting. Great article Kirk.

  5. @David- the digital age barely saved me from rare video snobbery. The exclusive stuff I paid dearly for at conventions that I was showing at parties can now be seen any time at any cubicle in America.

    @Geoff- I have all the Simpsons DVD sets but I still won’t get rid of my twenty-odd VHS tapes because they have all the 1990s commercials. Pathetic, I know.

    @sha- ha, ha, I’m not used to being the voice of a harsh reality.

    @Shawn- Amen! Reminds me of the time I found the pre-DVD release Spinal Tap video at a flea market for $2 when it was selling on ebay for $80+. And I wouldn’t have my $3 Wacky Racers and Yogi Bear season sets if it weren’t for Big Lots and your tip off. Thanks!

  6. Kirk, what a great recounting….the sensory aspects of so much of art are being lost, the experiential world in full. I love the reduction in waste and pollution, but what are we sharing anymore? It’s becoming quite point and click and frankly invisible. Thanks for the thought-provoking essay on what is being lost. Wow….I’m old. (That’s cool.)

  7. The feel of a book, the smell of a library, the ritual of playing a vinyl recording–I’ll miss these things, but I suspect they’ll be missed in an odd order. Libraries will not likely disappear soon, while book popularity is certainly declining. Music media will be lost sooner than print, I suspect. All a bit sad.

  8. Haha–I, too, have been cursing the lack of a “Play All” feature on the Twilight Zone DVDs. It’s the one thing that’s kept me from watching them all already…!

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