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.