Digitizing photos and music: Yeah, that’s great, but let’s not completely lose the ‘old’ way

I make my living with online marketing.  I believe that digitizing media content generally increases its distribution and access.  Yet I also believe we are losing a lot when we ‘replace’ rather than ‘increase’ (often, thinking this is an equivalent or superior exchange) digital content from the physical.  I’ll give you three examples.

Paul and I don’t argue often, but I remember a time a few years ago when I got pretty irked with him.  In an effort to streamline our apartment, Paul insisted we take a big living room drawer of alphabetized CDs and 1) digitize many of them, and 2) put all of their front cover CD jackets in a CD album and 3) throw away the cases.

At the time I realized deep down that I was upset by this proposition, by at the same time, it seemed so logical.  Why waste all the space with plastic jackets when it could all be stored so much more efficiently?  We spent hours extracting CDs and throwing away their jackets.  (BTW, the resulting space in the drawer ended up being filled with nothing but junk)

It’s a 100% certainty that I listen to less music at home now than I did when we made that change.  Most of the music is now on our digital players and all of the CDs are in CD albums.  But the fact that I can’t ‘scan a drawer’ any more to see 150+ titles at once and get a sense of discovery has fundamentally changed my music consumption. Digital browsing techniques, despite all their innovations, tagging, and searching techniques, simply can’t match this simple scanning method of physically viewing hundreds of ‘somewhat known’ objects and picking one that fits the time and mood.  Apple’s OSX has come as close as anybody to replicating physical browsing, but it still doesn’t replace it.

My next example is a photo album/scrapbook my mom put together for me a few years ago and which is one of my most treasured gifts.  It was a chronology from my childhood to adulthood, including photos, awards, bulletins, business cards, family memorabilia, you name it.  No doubt there are numerous sites that could claim to digitally reproduce this experience, but nothing can replace the physical album on my bookshelf that I look at often and that I know was a labor of love representing many months of work on my gradeschool dining room table.  I like Flickr, Picasa, and any number of photo sharing & organization sites, but for me they’ll never come close to replacing the immediate gut reaction I have from looking through that album or opening a box of printed photos.

Digital books: same issue.  I get the convenience; I’ll probably buy a Kindle at some point.  But will this ever replace the comfort and satisfaction of placing that read-and-enjoyed book in a comfy spot on your bookshelf?  Will it ever replace the satisfaction of browsing through the broadsheet Sunday Times and discovering a story headline that catches your eye and draws you in?  I doubt it.

As we use digital and web methods to broaden access and speed availability, let’s not forget that physical mediums, in terms of their scannability, human connection, and physical meaning, still count for a lot.

4 responses to “Digitizing photos and music: Yeah, that’s great, but let’s not completely lose the ‘old’ way

  1. What a horrible story: just as if all libraries would rip the covers of their books after digitizing them in the name of efficient storage 😉
    Of course my CD collection is still intact (just as my vinyl records collection). I even burn and make cases for CDs I downloaded in digital format.
    The most horrible side-effect of this digitizing imho is the disappearance of small record shops.
    Btw did you notice I know more about books than about cigars 🙂

  2. I often wonder if people will ever miss all those photos that are just stored on their computers (sooner or later they’ll be “lost”). I love holding and looking at photographs. Think of all those memories that will be gone.

  3. I JUST had this argument with my husband! He asked why I still do photo albums. I may have all the pictures on our server, but viewing them on the computer isn’t the same as sitting with the physical album and enjoying it. Just not the same. Same with books. I can’t have my signed Stephen King collection on Kindle. I will give in and get one for convenience, but I will always want some books as BOOKS. And the CDs – gotta be able to just scan and go “I haven’t heard that in ages!” RIGHT THERE WITH YOU!

  4. @Susan & @Emily: The three of us are all in the “40+” age segment…I wonder how long it will take the 20-somethings to figure this one out? Or would they just say “You guys just don’t get it?”

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