Digital Media is Convenient, But Transient & Unsustainable

I’ve written in the past about some issues with digital distribution of media, and how it’s not convenient for those without fast & stable internet. Even ignoring that, however, I’ve recently found myself musing on some other issues with digital distribution of media. Particularly, I’ve found myself disturbed by the ephemeral nature of digitally-distributed media and the problems it creates for media preservation.

As a medium, video games are naturally difficult to preserve. If you don’t have the hardware it was intended to run on, or something which can emulate its properties, playing it is impossible. Unlike movies or music, which once recorded can be played again and again on numerous compatible devices, games require different amounts of processing power and graphical capabilities to run. In addition, porting a game to run on newer hardware is nowhere near as simple as copying a movie over to a new format, like DVDs and Blu-Rays. PC games especially can run into significant problems, and trying to get older PC games running on modern computers is something of a nightmare.

But the digital distribution of media has made this preservation that much more difficult. Physical copies of games can be played again and again so long as you have access to the original disc and hardware, but DRM and digital distribution means that your games are only available to be bought and sold so long as the service running it continues to operate. Even if you can play it once the service has shut down, it’s impossible to buy a copy digitally without a storefront, meaning it’s only available to you if you have a system it’s downloaded to.

Digital distribution of music has some amount of longevity, offering downloads of music files that can be played through numerous forms of software. But streaming options have introduced a new shelf life to the medium. Streamed media is convenient for those lacking hard drive space or physical storage space, but is only available so long as the streaming service continues to operate. It is also dependent on the strength of your hardware, so as streaming sites get more intensive, older hardware becomes incapable of playing the same content it was once able to.

The closest comparison I can make to the current state of digital media distribution is the early days of film, when films were made out of incredibly flammable material and backups were rare to non-existent. Much of early film was lost due to theaters and warehouses catching fire or improperly stored film corroding when it made contact with oxygen.

We now have the knowledge of how important media preservation is, and the means to better preserve and maintain media. Yet we instead seek to make it all the more temporary and ephemeral. Games are launched with half the game contained in a day-one update. Media is offered through streaming-only. We are phasing out media that can be shared and borrowed, and entering into an age of media which only exists so long as the company distributing it does.

Convenient as digital media is, we are approaching it in the most foolish way possible.

For more information on the flammability of early film, please check out Why the Golden Age of Cinema was also its most dangerous by Atoms and Numbers.

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