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August 28, 2012 / Mervyn Dinnen

Digital Ownership vs Physical Ownership

The recent discovery that Amazon now sell more eBooks than physical books led me to wonder whether we are creating a digital library of unread books.

Downloading is easy, be it books or music. It’s one, maybe two clicks and they’re yours. Rarely have you taken days or weeks of researching, of visiting a shop and browsing through the shelves and options. It is quite often an impulse decision – at least three in my Twitter network (including me) downloaded a couple of Black Keys albums this weekend as we watched them live on BBCs Reading Festival coverage.

Hey, they sound good; I don’t have any of their stuff.

Someone recommends a book or a song and we download it. C’mon don’t say you haven’t done it!

But do we relate to these in the same way? Has the digital availability of cultural artefacts led to an ownership vs consumption conundrum? Or does the ubiquity of the hardware/software – eg a kindle, a kindle app on the iPhone and on the iPad – mean that we now have so many ways of consuming what we have bought that we consume even more than before?

But if we think – ‘yes, I’ll get that’ – and then click, click, we have it…do we feel the same way? Have we invested enough of ourselves in that acquisition? And how many times do we buy more than we would if the purchase was of the physical copies.

There’s nothing to beat the feel of a book, the smell of a book, holding it and flicking through the pages. If you’re not reading it you can hear the book shouting at you…read me. READ ME!

Music is a bit different – the shift from vinyl to CD clearly signalled a change in the relationship between album and owner – yet even now some are feeling nostalgic towards the CD.

In the early days of iPod most of the conversation was around what songs and albums you should have…rarely did the conversation seem centred on what to listen to. Similarly with the Kindle I hear many talk about what books they should have, or need to get.

I appreciate that some of this is purely semantics. I chatted about this with both Rob Jones and Matt Alder last week and both feel that they consume as much – possibly more – than before.

Yet I’m still not so sure. I see a definite shift in language away from consumption and towards ownership and I wonder if it is driven by the manner of acquisition.

So I’m throwing it open. Tell me if your iPods and e-Readers are cluttered with things you’ve bought but rarely listen to or read. Or do you find you consume even more?

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3 Comments

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  1. Stephen O'Donnell (@stephenodonn) / Aug 28 2012 11:29 AM

    I reckon that whilst the majority will follow the convention of the day, and consume media in the way they are directed to, there has always been a sizeable group who don’t. I love music and books, and I especially love live music being performed in front of me. I acquire thousands of tracks, but purchase very little. Whilst I couldn’t imagine life without music, I could get along fine without my favourite artist, album or song. Music is precious, but it cannot be owned. Ultimately every sound, or collection of sounds is disposable. There are only a finite number of notes and permutations after all.
    Music has always been given away freely, on radio, in clubs, pubs, or by performers. If you are talented, you can make your own music. I came close to, but was never really absorbed into the record buying masses in the 70’s and 80’s. I couldn’t really appreciate any ownership of the sound, even if the vinyl disc and cover was in my possession. Having it, of course, gave me the freedom to hear that sound whenever I wanted, but I resented the padding of albums with substandard tracks in between my favourite songs. As I want variety, I found it impossible to listen to the same band play more than 3 songs in a row. As a result, I would make tapes of only the songs I liked.

    Cassettes were, of course lower quality than vinyl, but were much more convenient. So too was the lower compressed quality of CD, and even lower fidelity still is the MP3. An MP3 doesn’t have a physical presence, an album cover, or sleeve notes. It is a digitally compressed file of the original recording, and can be streamed live to many devices. In the 1990’s, I used to buy hooky discs full of thousands of music tracks in the local market. I only ever listened to some of them.

    It is absolutely true, that the kid who saved to buy the newest album of his idols, queued up in Woolworths, and carefully lowered the needle onto track one will treasure that purchase far more than someone today, who acquires ownership of a track during the first 30 seconds of hearing it. As adults with ready cash, and an iTunes account, we can now purchase music on a whim, just because we liked the intro. If it turns out to be rubbish, we write off the 79 pence in the blinking of an eye. This is fickle market which modern musicians have to deal with.

    My eldest son is in the middle of recording his third CD. He’ll release it digitally through iTunes and other channels, via the label he set up, which handles and promotes other bands too. He knows full well the challenges of anyone aspiring to make a living in music, and makes a point of always buying his music legitimately.

    On the books front, I have a stack of half finished real books in my bedroom, and another bundle on my Kindle App. I’ll read them eventually.

  2. Callum Saunders / Aug 28 2012 1:07 PM

    I work in the digital sector and am an avid reader of books, yet consistently rebuff efforts of my family to get me a Kindle! For me, I like amassing certain books and building a physical library to display in my house. For me, these visually-displayed books are conversation starters. They say something about me to the people who come into my house. A Kindle on a shelf doesn’t have this ability.

    However, I used to be the same with CDs. Having worked in HMV, I invested a lot of time and effort into building a credible CD collection – in a very similar vein to Fight Club! But the ease of digital downloading and iTunes has seen me go digital with my music. I do still regularly purchase CDs however – mainly because these are often CHEAPER than digital downloads now!

    Clearly, for me, music and books are very different. I cannot imagine a home without books on the walls.

    • Stephen O'Donnell (@stephenodonn) / Aug 28 2012 2:37 PM

      With respect, I think there is a lot of misplaced sentiment in possessing a hard copy of books. I read a lot, but have never (or almost never) read the same book twice. Once I have consumed it, I dispose of it by passing it on for someone else to enjoy, with my recommendation. At least I try to do this, but the enormous pile of books in my house says I should try harder.

      I have no problem with book burning. They are not sacred tomes. If anything is sacred at all, it’s the content. In times when knowledge could only be passed by paper, books were of course viewed as dangerous, especially for dictators and despotic regimes. Holy books are seen as much more than a stack of paper, and have come to represent the very essence of their religions. However, I see no threat to any religion if their book is burned, no more than a country if their flag is burned.

      The content, the ideas and the authors are important. The containers of the work will continually change. Betamax anyone?

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