Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Future of Possessions

After writing my last post about Christian book (Bible, even!) burners, I have been thinking about the futility of book burning as a means of destroying ideas. Much of the credit for that goes to the dual developments of computers and the Internet; the access and ubiquity that these two forces have provided have given us some pretty interesting social developments.

Odd as it may seem, the advent and progress of the Information Age has made me less materialistic. I may be alone in this, but I find that my desire to possess physical objects has been steadily declining. I say "physical objects" because my desire to engage in the world has not changed. In fact, it has increased.

Take photographs as an example: ten years ago I took all of my photos on film. A roll of film contained 24 to 36 frames and all of it needed to be developed. This forced me to think of each shot as something special and important. When I had the pictures developed, I had them. They were unique and personal and physical. I usually got duplicates (because why not?) and might give one away. I still have all of these photos, weighing down a few boxes in my closet. I'll probably have them until I die. Digital photography has changed that for me and I sincerely miss the care I had to take with my pictures. I still take care to frame and shoot each photo, of course, but my camera's memory card will hold over 300 photos, so there's really no need to worry if a picture is 'good enough' to take. I'll also miss the excitement I got when picking up the photos from the developer. I'll miss opening the envelope up in the car and looking through them all before leaving the parking lot. And, of course, I'll miss having the photos in physical form. Sure, I can print them out - I don't have a photo printer, but I can certainly get a fine one at a reasonable price - but there's not really any need. Why load up more boxes with photos when I can just burn them to a data DVD and keep them that way?

And see, that's exactly where the divergence begins. I have so many digital photos from the past five years saved to multiple CDs and DVDs, not to mention hard drives and scattered across the Internet. There's no concept of a unique or original photo anymore so each one becomes less important. And although these digital photos are relatively secure, it is unlikely that I will look through them very often. In fact, there are plenty - hundreds if not thousands - that I will never see again. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a thousand pictures simply becomes tl;dr.

Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. I am no longer obsessed with these photos, no longer concerned with their safety. I don't have to watch them any more - I have given them over to the Internet for safekeeping. The same could be said for music, although I have stubbornly resisted (and will continue to resist for the foreseeable future) digital music. But the principle is there. Music bought on iTunes is more easily forgotten than music bought at a record store, even if it sounds exactly the same. Movies and television are similarly fated. We still buy the occasional DVD, but those purchases are very rare anymore. With Hulu and Netflix, we have essentially got an unlimited and very convenient video library at our disposal. Even our personal computers are becoming disposable. I am in the market for a new one and I realize that, aside from the above-mentioned need for photo storage, I have very little need for any kind of physical memory. Practically everything I do is online.

I still buy DVDs, I still buy CDs, I still buy games and books and magazines. But the day is coming when those things aren't going to matter to us anymore. Think of children growing up today and their attitudes toward hard-copies of various media. When they are 20 years old they won't buy books or CDs - they'll simply download them. And nothing will really change except that the information is shared instead of owned.

Maybe this is the creeping communism that everyone was worried about. It isn't difficult to imagine a world where no one needs more than a bed, some clothes and an Internet login. We could be headed to a worse future, for sure.

1 comment:

emma wallace said...

Interesting post! I just read another blog entry somewhere where the writer said that virtual items are of a lower value (and therefore should cost less) than tangible items. For me, I totally disagree! I think that the virtual music (which I do buy)/videos/books are just as valuable and I like the notion of buying knowledge or experiences rather than something material.