The Environmental Issue With Digital Media

Steven Hyden has a fascinating article on grantland.com today about how digital downloads of music are quickly becoming a thing of the past as they are replaced by services such as Spotify. He notes that, while record aficionados will continue to buy physical objects (and one could also make this argument for those of us who prefer real books to their bastardized e-book cousins), no one will be nostalgic about downloading songs because no physical object changes hands. As Hyden writes, “[p]eople continue to buy vinyl records because they enjoy the process of buying and playing vinyl records;” there is no equivalent of this experience with digital files. Or, to put it in Marxist terms, buying a record (or a book!) is one of the most prominent examples of a commodity fetish.

Hyden’s explanation of the changing way we consume recorded music makes sense, but what his article (and similarly, all of the articles extolling the virtues of e-readers) fails to discuss are the consequences of having all of one’s music in digital form when we run out of fossil fuels in twenty or thirty years. All of that data becomes meaningless if there is no electricity (or so little that it is needed for more basic tasks such as cooking or heating the home) to run the computer or charge the iPod. I suppose this might also be a problem when trying to run a CD player (though it won’t when trying to read a real book as long as there is a window nearby!). But my point is that, while the Digital Age is an exciting one, we do not talk nearly enough about its environmental impact and how we will adjust when the energy that powers it is no longer as available as it is now. This is why physical libraries/archives are so important.

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