Atoms versus Electrons

English: Underside of a DVD-R disc, modified t...
English: Underside of a DVD-R disc, modified to have transparent background. Français : Dessous d’un DVD (sur fond transparent) Frysk: DVD/dûbelskiif (Unterkant) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “Being Digital” by Nicolas Negroponte, he touches in the Introduction on the irony of printing a physical book whose theme is the digital world and how we are moving holus bolus into it. Most human activities can be performed on line, and at the moment that we want to do them. We can watch a movie, do our banking and communicate face to face with others, and many other social things.

Nevertheless, there persists in many people a strong desire to do things the non-digital way. People go to the cinema to sit in uncomfortable seats, eat over expensive popcorn, to crane their necks at huge images on a vast screen and be blasted with a (usually) over loud sound track. They presumably return home, having breathed the same air and germs as dozens of others for a couple of hours, with ringing ears and throbbing heads.

The Westgarth Cinema, former home of the Valha...
The Westgarth Cinema, former home of the Valhalla, as it was in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why? They could have caught the same movie while sitting in their own comfortable chairs at home, with the volume set to a comfortable level, eating whatever snacks they fancy, all without the hassles of driving to the cinema, finding and paying for parking, going through ticketing and most importantly, at a time of their own choosing.

Why indeed. Mostly I think that it is the sense of occasion, of doing something special, that drives us to visit cinemas and theatres. There is the excitement of getting up and going out there, being social, going to an actual cinema, buying and eating actual popcorn and ice blocks, sitting in a seat made damp and sticky by some previous customer, of being blasted out of one’s seat by the sound system and blinded by the brightness of the pictures on the screen.

English: The ancient (restored) theatre in Rho...
English: The ancient (restored) theatre in Rhodes, Acropolis, Greece. Français : Le théâtre antique (restauré) de Rhodes, sur l’Acropole. Grèce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At one time it used to be that new movies would only released into cinemas, and they would then be circulated through the cinema chains, so you might wait, literally, years to see a particular movie. Less popular movies may not even have reached local cinemas if they did not make enough money.

While they were not a digital medium, video tapes started to erode the monopoly that the cinemas held. The local video store became an institution. Movies good or bad could be obtained locally, and the only restriction imposed by the movie companies was that tapes were not released for movies that were circulating in the cinemas.

English: Global, Chapel Place, Headingley. Loo...
English: Global, Chapel Place, Headingley. Looking north across North lane to Chapel Place. The video and DVD store was once Hufton’s grocers. Back then it housed 3 shops – see a picture from 1933 on (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, the movie companies could not keep new movies under wraps for too long before illegal copies of their “blockbusters” became available so the delay before movies reached local outlets were reduced. A new category of movies – “straight to video” – became common. These were movies which the movie studios made which did not warrant being released through the cinema chains.

Video technology proved to be a mostly transient phenomenon. DVD and later Blue Ray technology was developed and this was true digital technology. A movie could be pressed onto one or two disks, and sound and video quality was hugely improved over both cinema and video tape technology. The era of the “Home Theatre” was born.

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Both video tapes and DVDs were susceptible to copying. This causes huge issues for the movie studios as, from their point of view, a DVD copied is one less DVD sold, and thus copying was, in their view, cutting into their profits. As a result, the DVD producers started encrypting their products, but of course they needed to let their customers view the DVDs that they have purchased.

It is likely that this encryption, plus the threat of prosecution for illegal copying deterred many people from casual copying, but a small minority are determined to circumvent such barriers, which they saw as preventing them from doing “legitimate” copying, for example for backup purposes. When a single game may cost more than $100, and a single scratch could render the disk useless, they argue that a backup of the DVD is essential.

One of Negroponte’s main points was that we are switching from transporting physical objects (atoms) to transferring only digital data (bits), and piracy is a case in point. It is easy to transfer the contents of a DVD if you can decrypt it and copying is merely the matter of a couple of clicks. Pirated (or decrypted) games will circulate on the Internet within hours of their release.

On the other hand, some enterprising software firms actually distribute their software on the Internet for anyone to download. All that you have to do is pay for the key to decrypt it. Others have found that if you allow someone to play a game, that if they like it enough they will pay for boost and assists as they play the game. These are known as “in app purchases” and are common in phone and tablet app downloaded for free.

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Much the same applies in the world of books. Most books are available in digital or ebook form and some people download thousands of free or decrypted ebooks are store them on their handheld devices. It makes me wonder if they are even going to read any of them, as I have about half a dozen books that I have downloaded which I haven’t got around to reading yet. Maybe this is a collector passion and not bibliophilia as such!

Some people do get a lot of pleasure from reading real books. They love the heft, the smell, the texture of a real book and this love of physical books may fade as people get used to reading on a screen, until, one day perhaps, real books will seem quaint and old-fashioned, just cinemas and theatres are tending to become.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...
English: Stack of books in Gould’s Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like the digital media, especially the subset of digital media that I can store on my computers. I like being able to watch what I want when I want to watch it. I like the easy portability of digital media. Although I can see the attraction of watching Robbie Williams or Lady Gaga in the flesh, I’ll pass on that and maybe watch them on YouTube instead, where I can watch their performance virtually, with clarity, with good sound. The mosh pit can have it to themselves!

Robbie Williams concert
Robbie Williams concert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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