Why I Already Miss Physical Media

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Tablet computers are displayed at the e-Book Expo Tokyo, in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, July 7, 2011.

For years, I had a happy weekend ritual. I'd head to my local Tower Records and lose myself in the aisles of CDs and DVDs. After emerging from the store — usually with some purchases in hand — I'd move on to a nearby Borders, where I'd peruse new books and magazines, rarely resisting the temptation to buy even more items. And then I'd have jerk chicken at the Jamaican restaurant that adjoined the Borders.

I still eat at that place, but now it's located next to a cavernous empty space, one of a couple hundred around the U.S. that were created when Borders declared bankruptcy and shuttered a third of its stores in February. (All the locations that survived that purge are now in the process of liquidating themselves.) Borders' fate is sadly similar to that of Tower Records, which went bankrupt — twice! — and then went out of business in 2006.

The decline and/or demise of once mighty retailers such as Borders, Tower, Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, Suncoast and Virgin Megastores is some of the most tangible evidence of an undeniable, inevitable truth: Physical media are starting to go away. Digital-music downloads and subscription services have already rendered CDs only slightly less quaint than LPs. Streaming video from companies such as Netflix and Amazon is starting to make DVDs — and even Blu-ray — look stale. I still buy more dead-tree books than I have time to read, but my instinctive response when I learn of a new one I might want to buy is usually "Is this available for Kindle?"

This trend is also reflected in statistics like the fact that DVD sales are way down at the same time that use of services such as Netflix is way up. And e-book sales are booming while hardcovers are hurting. I feel for the folks whose livelihoods are suffering as a consequence, such as the 11,000 remaining Borders employees who will be let go as the chain goes under.

As a consumer of stuff, however, I'm mostly pleased with this great digital transition. Thanks to iTunes, I can put MP3 copies of almost my entire CD collection on a pocket-size music player that also happens to be my telephone. With a paid subscription to Spotify, that same gadget has access to millions of songs. Streaming movies via an Internet-TV box such as Roku or a smart TV requires so little effort that getting up and sticking a disc in a DVD player sounds like a major project. I'm even okay with Apple's apparent desire to render the optical disc as irrelevant as the floppy drive.

And yet ...

I know I'm not a Luddite, and I don't think I'm myopically nostalgic. But the gloomier things get for physical media, the more I appreciate their virtues. And as nifty as digital media already are, they haven't yet lived up to a fraction of their enormous potential.

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