ideation iteration illumination

An interesting topic came up today that I’ve had pause to consider on a number of occasions, but one I’ve never done a deep dive on. I’m not sure how deep this dive will be either, but wanted to at least lay the groundwork for some future thinking.

The topic focuses on virtual versus physical media ownership, and specifically the newer streaming model of consumption. Media like photos, music, movies, and video games are all available digitally without the need to occupy actual three dimensional space, on a desks, a shelf, or a living/work spaces. Traditionally all of these items have had a physical component the most recent of which has been the Digital Disk (CD/DVD) complete with jewel case, printed cover art, and bonus added features.

The shift from CDs to MP3s (probably one of the more accepted means of digital ownership) allowed for the transfiguration of physical artifacts into digital ones, thus expanding the physical space allocation of owned content. What was once on CD is now also on a hard drive. The digital version is then capable of being further duplicated onto various devices in an ever expanding footprint of ownership. DVDs have this ability as well, but the DRM (digital rights management) and space requirements often make this a far less likely outcome. The pure MP3 download (i.e. without a CD) has become ubiquitous thanks to iTunes and Amazon MP3 but even then a footprint is felt, occupying a bit of real world hardware space.

The first virtual completely digital model was in downloadable versions of media which still afforded a sense of physical artifact because of the “space” they occupied on physical storage devices (ex. hard drive), but what about the more lightweight streaming media that faster bit rates have allowed. These items reside in “the cloud” and have a vaporous presence on screen only during the consumption period. When purchasing streaming media content ownership is permanent, but there is no artifact to comfort me about this transaction. Effectively a license to view ad nauseam has been purchased, but there is no physical entity to show for the money spent – only the promise of digital bits on a screen, stored somewhere else at the ready for when I push play.

There is a quite natural fit with both video rental and on-demand subscription type arrangements that differ from the full purchase scenario. With both rental and subscription models, there is already a sense of impermanence. Temporary access to items during a pre-arranged window of time and for a pre-arranged duration. Even in the physical world, when a video is rented from a local video store there is an expressed acknowledgement that the item will be returned and thus there is no thought that the renter will retain anything after the rental period has expired. The only take away is the experience of consuming the media.

Digital books are another aspect of this consideration that is growing with the continued popularity of the Kindle. This model is like the MP3 one made popular by iTunes and the iPod, requiring an initial purchase of a physical device that is contextually specific to the consumption experience and thus satisfies the need for an relational object. What about purchased e-book content that can be read on any device that supports the Kindle app (divorced from the device) such as a PC, an iPhone, or now the iPad? Is the satisfaction less palpable without the physical artifact for reassurance? The Kindle seems to be a sparkle of success outside the large shadow of the iPod in transitioning the popular mindset from physical to digital and hopefully both will help guide the popular thinking on the matter.

A big difference between the all of Apple’s “iThings”, the Amazon Kindle, and streaming media in general is that streaming media requires a constant connection to access owned content up in the cloud whereas the others store content locally. The increasing connectivity of the world around us with large data pipelines, Wi-Fi. and 4G renders this need less and less a concern, but it is palpable nonetheless as one can be (often intentionally) disconnected… and then what? Even after truly ubiquitous high speed connections are possible, there is still an understanding and acceptance that needs to be acquired for this sort of arrangement.

Like all new ideas there are pros and cons to the streaming model. For one thing, not having to endure or skip through the ever increasing amount of advertisements and previews that precede the main menu of today’s DVDs is absolutely refreshing. With streaming video a viewer selects a video to watch and it begins playing that video, nothing else. It’s simple, it’s direct and it’s pleasing. A downside however is given the ups and downs of internet connections these days, one is never quite guaranteed a high quality viewing experience. All too often HD content is downgraded to SD quality due to network traffic fluctuations. That’s never a problem with a DVD and even with today’s high speed internet, full HD streaming (1080p) resolution remains a thing of the future.

Considering all of this, I ask myself if I am as comfortable with the intangible as I am the tangible? My logical side says “yes”, but my purchasing habits say differently. I want to better understand this dynamic because I think that there is an essential notion that is in transition inside the minds of consumers given the changing world of technology and media around us. Personally, I love the endless flexibility of the purely digital. Tagging, organizing, searching, bookmarking, syncing, filtering and I will never have to buy shelves again, no matter how large my library gets. At the same time, there is a more comfortable sense of acquisition and ownership when I unwrap a new DVD and insert it on my library shelf, moving all other titles down to allow it a rightful place in the world. But the digital version is simply an thumbnail image on a screen. Why does that somehow feel less real?

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