The “Value” of Something
Forget skeumorphism, often the best value is in the real, tangible object itself.
By James Novick-Smith
Illustration by Nicholas Chulo
While many of our societal systems have been overwhelmed or ground to a halt by the pandemic, even now, many months in, our consumption of media and other content is at an all-time high. Consider just how COVID-proof our media ecosystem is: There’s, theoretically at least, an infinite amount of entertainment (movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, et al.) at our disposal and all of it at the touch of a button (or two), and we don’t have to interact with a single other soul should we want to access a title in this vast yet ever-shifting library. While this instant gratification is certainly preferable to making trips to Blockbuster and Barnes & Noble or waiting for the next Netflix DVD to show up in the mail (remember those days?), our right to access much of the content we love is not guaranteed, and can be retracted, redacted, and revoked at any moment.
The internet is a predominantly communal and shared ecosystem and personal ownership of anything online is a complicated and nearly impossible venture. As our world grows more and more digital by the day, our valuation of tangible items is changing rapidly. With brick-and-mortar retail stores shuttering all across America, so too are we witnessing the end of complete and autonomous physical ownership of personal goods. Society is hurtling towards a widespread culture of rentalship; thankfully, we don’t have to go quietly into that gloomy future. Taking a page out of Marie Kondo’s book, we ought to re-evaluate which possessions we choose to keep not based off of what brings us joy, but what would bring us sadness should it cease to exist in its tangible form.
“Society is hurtling towards a widespread culture of rentalship; thankfully, we don’t have to go quietly into that gloomy future. Taking a page out of Marie Kondo’s book, we ought to re-evaluate which possessions we choose to keep not based off of what brings us joy, but what would bring us sadness should it cease to exist in its tangible form.”
The late ‘90s was the heyday for physical media sales and ownership, but technological advancements and a drive to maximize profits has made that era a distant memory in just a generation’s time. When CDs and DVDs replaced cassette tapes & VHSs, the prices consumers paid didn’t change much (outside of inflation); the cost to buy a movie or album had long been standardized, and consumers were used to paying the asking price. However, what they didn’t know was that the cost to produce these new forms of media was vastly lower, meaning margins were suddenly much wider for record labels and production studios. They rode this wave until internet speeds quickened and services like iTunes and Napster were invented and the iPod came to market. YouTube furthered the evolution of the media industry even more as a revolutionary video sharing platform. Now, of course, it’s difficult to imagine not being able to stream any media at a moment’s notice, as long as the WiFi connection is strong and you have a credit card handy.
It only took two decades for the online ecosystem to outgrow the physical one. Entertainment companies read the writing on the wall and now seem to have waning interest in producing tangible versions of the media we all enjoy. All of the steps that go into the creation of physical media—printing, pressing, packaging, and shipping—are costs that these publishers realized they could bypass and immediately increase profits. Disney recently announced that, moving forward, they would no longer be releasing 4K Blu-Ray discs and, instead, will exclusively sell digital copies. There’s no doubt others will follow suit soon enough. The coronavirus has, of course, played a significant role in this transition, but many of the dominos were already ready to fall before the pandemic ever came about.
America is a nation built on private ownership—of land, goods, and intellectual property—so there are certainly limits to how far this rental culture will extend. However, we are already seeing the prevalence of communall, low-priced media like music and TV and it is clear that more expensive dominos will eventually fall, too. While streaming platforms were once simply licensing content, they are now heavily invested in production, too. The vertical integration that is becoming more and more prevalent in the media industry is unfortunately never beneficial to the consumer given there’s less competition and fewer possible choices. It’s true: Media companies know exactly how to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of each consumer.
Why would publishers continue to sell physical products that cost money to produce when they could host everything online and keep people under their thumbs by charging for access? Think of physical media as a “vaccine”—you get it once and likely that’s the end of it. Why would any self-respecting capitalist opt for that strategy when they could instead provide continuous “treatment”—access to media—for a nominal fee? Just as these platforms have put their libraries behind a paywall, they can (and platforms like Apple already have) begin charging users for storage space in “the cloud.” So, even if you do own digital copies of your favorite media, you won’t be off the hook. “The cloud” has been successfully branded as a sort of existential panacea that will solve all of our technological woes, but it’s not something that can be owned outright.
While digital libraries have helped to democratize education and entertainment for the masses, there is still a difference between owning something on “the cloud” versus on a bookshelf. It’s much easier to restrict access to digital libraries, or put them behind a paywall in perpetuity. Some deign to call that curation. While it’s true that piracy and illegal copies of all types of media are pervasive across the internet, publishers are working overtime to fight back and suppress these back channels. In September, news broke that HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and several other megapublishers have levied a lawsuit against The Internet Archive for copyright infringement.
The Internet Archive’s “Open Library” lends out 4 million digital books at no charge to users, but many of the titles are not under the public domain. At a time when 90% of the world’s students have been adversely affected by the pandemic, providing broader access to educational materials would presumably be a positive outcome. But, unfortunately, publishers are only looking out for their best interests. Should they win their suit, The Internet Archive, a tech partner to the Library of Congress and vital steward of internet history through its Wayback Machine and Archive-It platforms, could be closed permanently. This would not only be a disastrous loss for the online community, but would also drive us further into a rental culture.
We’ve taken it completely for granted, but only for a fraction of human history have we been able to re-experience content that we enjoy whenever we want. Without physical media, this privilege is no longer a lifetime one; it’s dependent, instead, on a connection to the internet and subject to change based on the whims of the companies who host the media. Physical media is the best way to guarantee quality—there’s no need to worry about the content being low-res, censored, shown in the wrong aspect ratio, or removed completely.
“Physical media is the best way to guarantee quality—there’s no need to worry about the content being low-res, censored, shown in the wrong aspect ratio, or removed completely.”
Luckily for us, we haven’t reached the tipping point quite yet—there’s still time to buy our favorite pieces of media and entertainment outright. There is a strong counterculture against consumerism and while some years ago that was manifested by online piracy, now we are seeing an increase in physical media ownership (see: the resurgence of vinyl records) as a way to rebuff the power of streaming. It’s a millennial stereotype that we all value experiences over possessions; now that we are living in a time without any novel experiences, many have a newfound appreciation for the possessions that bring them joy. As physical media enters the endangered species list, preserving these valuables is more important than ever. We can’t go back in time and quench the fire in the Library of Alexandria, but we have an obligation to make sure that our modern library doesn’t evaporate into “the cloud.”︎