Thursday, April 1, 2021

Losing Touch

Imagine living in a pod with nothing to look at but your bed, a screen, and a small supply of processed government approved meals to munch on. We appear to be unknowingly charging into this future with a smile on our faces. Within the decade there won't be much we will value outside of ephemeral bits of data on the internet. It helps when we have less reason than ever to actually leave our homes, and we are getting less reasons by the day.

During the 2010s, there was a growing trend in entertainment no one wanted to address. In fact, this trend really went back as far as the invention of file sharing services over a decade earlier. The devaluing of physical media, and art, as nebulous property licenses that only corporations had the right to grant limited access to became to be accepted by most consumers. Art was no longer meant to connect, it was meant to make corporations richer, though it was sold as "freedom" and swallowed wholesale by certain techheads. You can still find such takes online to this day about how locking things away in a nebulous cloud with expiring licenses is somehow a preferable future. Just look at the lack of reaction to Microsoft charging yearly fees for programs you only had to buy once years ago. Consumers don't question it, they just fork over the money. The internet doesn't really ever forget, though it does seem to not think things through.

Between 1999 and 2001, the invention of Napster changed the relationship patrons had with art, perhaps permanently. It did this by offering an ease of availability and a free cost that no one could have possibly foreseen being a reality mere years earlier. It was a Pandora's Box that to this day has never been shut, and never really can be again. not as long as the internet exists. The mindset shift it changed in people was simply too radical, especially considering that there was a time that over 80 million people used the service.

Before Napster, we more or less took our art and entertainment for granted. Go to the local store, pay a fair price, and get the desired product in return that you could use forever, or at least until it broke. The rules were clear, and easy. Whether you bought a ticket to a movie theater to watch it once or rented a copy at the store, it was always straightforward. You knew what you owned, and what you didn't. That was all overturned in 1999.

Once the art was devalued to mere nebulous files on the internet that old perception changed. You could now get high quality bootleg versions of whatever entertainment you wanted--for free! As download speeds got faster and hard drives got bigger, so did the possibilities grow. Physical sales of media dropped year after year, eventually ending up with music more or less stranded on digital download services with no other option for purchase. Unless you were quirky enough to get a vinyl release, finding CDs had gone out of style with the death of rock music. And this is before getting to the downgrade that is streaming.

Everything changed in a small handful of years, but nobody realized how much it had until much later. Some of us still don't see it, and won't until they wake up without access to a digital library that had been turned off by the license holder. We've walked into a situation that many think is a dream but is actually a nightmare scenario.

You don't actually own anything anymore. Most won't even notice or care until they get their rude awakening. We will keep paying corporations to make things more convenient, and yet far inferior, to what came before.

Even now, a year after a certain event caused public interaction to drop sharply, the trend has not reversed. It has in fact hastened the transition that was already occurring. Digital is the new norm and will be for a long time. We just desire convenience above all else.

  • For the first six months of 2020, total consumer spending on digital formats (including EST, VOD and SVOD subscription streaming) was strong, rising 37 percent from the same period in 2019 while subscription streaming alone also climbed 37 percent.
  • Consumer demand for theatrical releases continued to grow robustly across digital formats, as numerous wide release movies came early to the home. Spending on theatrical EST rose 48 percent in the second quarter and 26 percent in the first half. Spending on theatrical VOD, meanwhile was up 73 percent for the second quarter and 55 percent for the first half.
  • Theatrical catalog titles showed particularly strong growth, with EST and VOD spending on these titles growing 66 percent in the second quarter.
  • The TV category also experienced robust growth, with spending rising 120 percent on VOD and 72 percent on EST in the second quarter.
  • Internet-delivered VOD grew 76 percent in the second quarter and 56 percent in the first half as service options continue to proliferate and are embraced by consumers.

Digital is wiping out Physical

It was only a matter of time before every other medium followed suit after music. From the very basic system of purchasing a product to receive said product, we slowly began to move towards purchasing data with a far more limited use that can be turned off at the whim of the provider. You could burn it to CDs, but burned CDs never lasted all that long, and the mainstream audience never took to burning as well as they did the convenience of free storage in the "cloud" of their PC. The public prefers convenience over quality, which is why so many jumped on Napster and ditched CDs over night. Cost is really only part of it.

Of course, if the end goal of existence is convenience, then this is a great turn of events! You can get everything you ever wanted at the push of a button and then forget about it right afterwards. No need for storage, preservation, or ruminating on what you've just experienced. Once it's over it's out of your head and you can move onto the next product the good corporation has lined up for you. Consuming made easy!

And besides, isn't that plastic wrapping, cardboard, clamshell, casing, whatever, bad for the environment? Why, you're doing good while doing less. Isn't that a win for you and the world? You see, you are actually making a change by doing nothing. At least, this is how it's sold. It isn't actually true, but it makes for good justification.

The thought process isn't thought out, though. Once we've eliminated the rental shop, the flea market, and box store, and all resulting public interaction, everything will be perfect. One step away from not ever having to leave your house. Won't things be great then?

But, as always, it's not that simple.

Shelves that once contained those books, movies, and TV series, still exist. They just now house much different, and worse, trinkets upon them. You need something to fill the vacant shelves, right? What better than even cheaper plastic product?

This is a real video on youtube

But shelves empty of entertainment don't preclude tidy or even healthy homes. It's turning out to be the opposite. How you view art also reflects how you view life. Treating entertainment as disposable will lead to a disposable view on everything else. Considering where we are as a culture in the west? That's probably not such a good idea. And yet the train continues barreling in that direction, unchecked. Convenience always comes first.

Streaming is the logical conclusion as to where an all-digital entertainment climate leads. How can we get instant gratification at the push of a button? Easy. We can design a way to transmit the product into the customer's home and give them a way to return it to us as quickly as possible. We can have full control over the entire process! What's more, we could convince them that these new ways are an improvement over the way things once were.

Did it work? Well, how many people do you know think new things are automatically better than old things? Why would this be any different to them?

Of course, streaming can't work for everything, especially with how bad the internet is in the majority of the world. That doesn't mean they'll be giving up on it anytime soon. The end goal is to have full control over all your purchasing decisions to the point that you won't be able to buy anything. You will only ever be able to own a temporary license that can be revoked at any time. Though at least you can have cheap, disposable plastic baubles that remind you vaguely of the product you were allowed to consume. That's progress for you.

But even without streaming, digital is the future. At least, where the top men are concerned. Aside from OldPub's lumber ties leading to their aversion to the digital market, every other industry is gearing up to push you away from physical copies. They are working against the customer's best interests and have convinced the customer the opposite is true.

One of the more recent examples is that of Sony deciding to shut down their digital store for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and the PlayStation Vita. Not only did they tell customers on short notice (it is closing in July) but apparently none of the developers working on Vita games even knew this was happening. They learned this when the public did. For console makers who want to make console exclusive games in this climate, you're looking at a preservation nightmare. I have no idea how you could justify dumping money into the Sony brand any longer.

Think about it this way: if these above systems didn't have physical copies or a used market, the closure of their online stores essentially mean your several hundred dollar investment in their product is now worthless. That doesn't take into account that there are many games only available on said store that will be instantly wiped out and lost once the store vanishes. There was absolutely no thought put into preservation or backwards compatibility, and that's the issue here.

As an example, one of my favorite games on the PlayStation Store is Hard Corps. Uprising by Konami and Arc System Works for the PlayStation 3. It isn't on PC, it was never released on a Nintendo system, and Konami never saw fit to put it in any compilation. The only place it is going to be available after July is on the Xbox. So if Microsoft closes their store? Then the game gets deleted for good. No one has preserved it.

Games like this are now hanging by a thread.

Without a physical copy, the game is in danger of being erased. It's not the first time Konami did this, either. When the Wii store closed a few years back, Konami's Rebirth games remained download exclusives. Unless you have it downloaded to your Wii to this day, you can never play the game again. And it's going to happen again.

This is the reality of a digital future.

This isn't the case with old games. The original Contra, of which series Hard Corps. Uprising is a part of, had its first console release in 1987 and was out of print for twenty years before being included as an extra in Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS. And yet it never went forgotten. It remained a popular game in flea markets, game stores, and thanks to the ROM and emulator explosion of the late '90s, it was able to retain relevance and popularity. All thanks to the secondhand market. 

What kept Contra alive was the fact that it was, at its heart, a great game that people wanted. This despite the fact that Konami had done literally nothing with the game with two decades. Gamers are the ones who made it an enduring classic, not the owners.

So what about Hard Corps. Uprising's case? What happens if the Xbox store closes in the next few years? Sure it will be still tied to the hardware of those who bought it, but not forever. Console hardware is nowhere near as durable as it once was, and eventually the companies will no longer offer repairs. The Nintendo DS is one of the highest selling systems ever made and yet Nintendo, for instance, does not offer repairs for it. These companies are not good at preservation. Without a secondhand market, a game like Hard Corps. Uprising dies because of corporate negligence. This is the future we're looking at.

And given how bad Konami is about releasing their old games (as a previous post noted, Violent Storm hasn't been re-released in nearly 30 years, saved only by ROMs and the existence of MAME emulation) it will also not be getting a new release, being left to obscurity. Even if it does, it will only be as yet another digital file, destined to be left unsupported with the passage of time. All because of the digital only idiocy we support.

Hopefully none of you PC gamers are sitting over their nodding your heads and smirking at this predicament, not when you almost certainly have a Steam library you can lose access to with the flick of a switch and there is nothing you can do about it. You're not safe. The problem is a lot bigger than just one video game company.

Malls were only the first casualty

With the death of the television system and collapse of movie theaters, visual entertainment has changed a good deal over the decades. What else is left? Why, it's the internet. Now the water cooler subjects to talk about are all day one streaming exclusives that won't get a physical release for years, if ever. It's all flash in the pan, without any thought to the future.

Even when the past subject for most such talks were weekend openings for blockbuster movies or first run episodes of network television, it was still a one time thing that viewers had to watch at a designated time and place. There was still some effort to seek it out and watch it. Now with online streaming and entire dumped series, binge watching and consuming is encouraged as soon as possible. As long as you see it and talk about it before anyone else, who cares if it gets removed at a future date? You've already got everything out of it you're ever going to get.

The less you have to do to work for your entertainment, finding it, looking it up, and going out of your way to get it, the more likely you are to give it proper focus beyond the base level. Streaming and digital distribution encourages the exact opposite of this. It instead wants you to consume and move on to the next thing to consume, preferably what the streaming company has for you next. There is no focus on creating lasting art or entertainment. It's just mindless gluttony and nothing more. When it's gone, no one will notice because there is new content to consume. Always look to the future! Progress! Forget the past.

Although, oddly enough, that trend appears to be reversing. At least a little. Because of the lower runs of physical editions, those who wish to own their entertainment now have to work a bit harder for it. And they actually are.

For instance, twenty years ago one could walk into a DVD store in the mall and find just about every movie that had just been released to home video. The cost wasn't even that much due to high runs and wide distribution whether obscure or mainstream. Nowadays, however, the reality is flipped. Aside from newer big studio movies, if you wish to find a film you really want to own you now have to dig online to find it. Sometimes it is only brought in print by a boutique label, for example, giving it a limited run for a higher cost. And some people will still go out of their way for it. Mostly because many understand that this might be the last time they will ever be able to own it.

And they're not wrong.

Though such people are a minority (and some are undoubtedly hoarders and the resulting scalpers) it does mean that there is an audience that will go the full nine yards when it comes to acquiring what they want. It means there are those unsatisfied with the dying state of western media and willing to do what they can to not lose what they've had for their entire lives. There is a market, as neglected as it might be, that doesn't plan on going anywhere.

Boutique labels can sometimes outdo the original release

We can't ignore the elephant in the room that the overall trend is towards pure disposability, and but at least there is a sign that a market for the opposite does exist. As the reality of streaming and digital becomes more and more apparent, expect that small market to grow.

And it isn't all hopeless. As the above link mentioned:

  • Consumers interest in DVDs reignited, slowing the disc format’s decline. After years of double-digit declines, spending on DVDs was off just 6 percent YOY in Q2. Wallet-conscious consumers embraced product with price points below $10 and theatrical catalog under $6 especially was in high demand, posting a 3 percent YOY growth in the second quarter.

So there are those that most certainly realized what was coming down the pike, most likely after understanding just how limited their options were about to become. An all digital is not a world anyone should want to live in.

As we dive further and further into digital license hell, keep in mind that not everyone is okay with this state of affair. As long as people understand the worth of what they own, physical copies will always exist. Though trends might come and go, some things never change.

Art aims for the eternal, not the temporal. Though the attempt at entertainment might not last the ages, the intent remains unchanged in that it must try to connect. Art matters, it's not just a whimsy or throwaway, no matter how shallow or tossed of it may feel or was made to be. It needs to always be treated as if it matters. Because everything does.

Once we internalize that, the rest will work itself out. It's just going to take some time for us to understand how. We were given the sensation of touch for a reason. It's because we need to be able to feel. Don't ever forget that.

Some of us even put additional work into our physical editions. Such as this book of seven interconnected stories in a world of magic, noir, and heroes. Check it out today!


  1. This digital age has always alarmed me. When Steam launched, I complained that when they die, you lose all your games. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth. Subscription games like World of Warcraft, Fortnite, and Destiny will be gone once they turn the server off. You will never find an old disc in a box, pop it in, and fire it up. All that will remain will be grainy videos taken by streamers. Assuming Youtube is around in ten years. And ebooks! Those can be erased by Zon at the click of a button. These Zon exclusive ebook only authors scare me to death.

    My only comfort is that one day, Destiny will be gone, and I can publish all my fanfiction as legitimate books. :-D

    1. I've seen people be banned from Steam and lose access to hundreds of games. It's not a reliable system and we're going to see more and more in the coming years. I prefer to use GOG but even then I still have to keep backups.

      Steam was a blessing for indie developers who had no bigger means of distribution, but it's going to come around and bite everyone some day.

    2. Luckily I don't have that many Steam-games. But I have to look if I can find ways to back those games up before the downfall happens.

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  3. Of the physical mediums, I would invest in blurays. DVDs feel obsolete in a bad way: they are a downgrade from blurays in terms of quality but they don't have their own charm like VHSs do. Blurays cost more but it's worth it.

    1. They are also far more durable and on a base level offer better sound and image quality than DVD.

      A lot of the boutique labels regularly engage in sales, too. So if you really want certain movies you can wait. I think Kino Lorber just had one recently, for instance.

      As I said in the post, you sort of have to fight for basic entertainment now. Keep an eye out!

    2. And speaking of VHSs, just as of yesterday I started digitizing my old tapes. The first one contained recorded programs from early 90s: a Donald Duck movie, an episode of Chip And Dale rescue rangers, an episode of Star Trek TNG and miscellaneous cartoons and program bits.

    3. And of course some old finnish advertisement breaks which at this point are bits of cultural history.

    4. Aaand a Michael Jackson music video from MTV.

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  5. I'm gonna blog about this and link to your excellent post.

  6. You are so right about digitalized art being disposable. "Convenience" is just another word for laziness born out of the blind consumerism that capitalism has been exploiting ever since the previous century. But now the corporations can exploit it so much more than they ever have since, as you said, licenses are now purchased rather than copies of the products (e.g. video games, movies, books) themselves. I say, bring on the second hand market and the minority specialty markets that continue to sell the physical media. The physical media is part of the art and the experiencing of that art.

  7. I'm coming to see digital downloads as something akin to the old pulps or magazines, or the days of rental for videos or games--use it for bargains or for convenience, but go physical for anything you want to have in enduring form.

    1. That's a good way to look at it. I don't see any digital file I have as permanent, mostly because I know how easy it can be to lose without my input.

  8. Re: living in a pod:
    "On the Axiom, you will survive." "I don't want to survive. I wanna live!"
    Could Wall-E get made today?

    But speaking of storage, M-Disc seems like a cool solution (those claim to last several hundred years). They even have 100GB discs! (Though those require Blu-Ray XL players to read/write.) Looks like those big ones are not cheap though!

    Archival DVDs (normal, Blu-Ray) are said to last 100 years so those are probably a good step that's cheaper.