This month, Amazon announced that sales of digital books for the Kindle have surpassed printed books for the first time. At times like these, it feels like everything physical in the world, from DVDs and CDs to paperbacks and boardgames, is evaporating right before our eyes, turning into invisible and insubstantial digital data stored in the online “cloud”.
Depending on your inclination, you might see this as a brave new online future where what was once scarce and expensive is now abundant and free (or at least, very cheap), and that without the weight of hundreds of books and DVDs, we can all become much more mobile – certainly a useful thing in these times of punishingly high house prices and short-term jobs.
You might equally say that when we swap our books for Kindles and our records for iPhones, we lose the feel of the paper and the serendipity of browsing through a friend’s carefully-curated library, and perhaps we should think twice before proclaiming the superiority of digital media over the physical.
This well-worn argument has been fought for the past decade, with the protagonists – digital evangelists versus old-media loyalists – getting precisely no-where at all. The truth is, there’s just no way to say whether digital media is “better” than physical media. You might as well compare apples and oranges.
Digital and physical media complement each other perfectly. Physical media will matter more, not less, when our lives are dominated by the digital, and that can only be a good thing for those creators and curators who love what only physical objects can give us.