What Is Digital Is Also Real and Material

Many people contrast the internet / online things with ‘the real world’ or ‘in real life’. This implies that the internet / online things are not ‘real’. I chose not to use this language because, to me, the internet is included in ‘the real world/real life’. If I want to clearly state that something is not on the internet, I usually use the word ‘offline’.

And it’s not just the internet – there is a broad cultural tendency to treat digital media in general, even if it’s offline, as if it has no real or material existence. But that is not true. Take this blog, for example. It’s a form of digital media, but all of the data on this blog is stored on physical memory drives of some sort somewhere (and it would be a good idea for me to make another backup of this blog soon – I need to remind myself). I use physical devices to write this blog and send the information to the WordPress servers, and as far as I know, everyone who reads this blog does it through some sort of device that exists in a material sense, and uses material resources (metal, plastic, electricity, and so forth).

(If you, the reader, are a disembodied intelligence who exists in a purely spiritual plane and has found a way to read this blog without any use of material resources, I’m sorry that I’m leaving you out, I am merely unaware of your existence.)

I see this embodied in a surprising number of discussions of minimalism / decluttering / organizing / etc. For example, I’ve encountered something like this multiple times:

Minimalist (in essay / video / book / etc.) : I gave away all of my books / I now only have X number of books / I stopped buying new books / etc.
Me (talking in my head) : That’s cool. Whatever makes you happy.
Minimalist: I borrow books from the library.
Me: Me too.
Minimalist: Besides, there are so many books which are available as ebooks, which I buy.
Me: Huh? But I thought you said that you only have x number of books / stopped buying books?!

There is a psychological difference here. To me, ebook = book. Therefore, if I say something like ‘I don’t have any books written in Spanish’ I also mean that I don’t have any ebooks in Spanish. But these minimalists seem to think of ‘ebooks’ as a different category than ‘books’. Both my way and their way are valid ways to think about ebooks.

And yes, I get that ebooks require a lot less physical storage space than paper books, are much less heavy, etc. On the other hand, paper books don’t depend on electricity or certain hardware to be readable. For someone whose must limit the number of books in their collection due to lack of physical storage space, or who needs to limit the weight of their books, ebooks are a very practical alternative to paper books. That is why, when I am travelling, nowadays I almost always favor my ebook reader over paper books.

However, at home, physical space is not the bottleneck on my book collection right now. My bookshelves are mostly full, but I have plenty of space to put in another set of low bookshelves. I could easily double my paper book collection without reducing the functionality or safety of my space, and if I were willing to either ignore earthquake safety and/or were willing to put in the effort to earthquake-proof high bookshelves, I could probably make at least a fivefold increase to the number of paper books stored in my room – and if I were willing to use spaces in the house outside of my room, I’d have even more storage options.

For me, the bottleneck is psychologically managing the books. Fewer books = easier to manage. And for me, that applies to ebooks just as much as paper books. Both paper books and ebooks can get lost, and the method to prevent them from getting lost – store them all in one designated place – is the same. In some ways, paper books are a little easier to manage, and in other ways, ebooks are a little easier to manage, but overall they feel the same to me. Also, the psychological pressure of unread books is the same whether it’s a paper book or an ebook, at least to me.

Most importantly, I feel the experience of reading a book is just as immersing whether it’s on paper, my ebook reader, or even my desktop monitor (though reading books on my desktop monitor has some extra inconveniences). A great book is a great book, however the letters reach my eyes.

And it’s not just books. Some minimalists / declutterers recommend getting rid of all DVDs, and one of their arguments is that ‘you can now watch all of these movies / TV shows / etc. on streaming services now.’ Me, I keep some DVDs, and sometimes even buy new DVDs, while I’m not subscribed to any streaming service. I buy DVDs so sporadically that it’s cheaper for me to do that than to get a subscription, so it saves me money. And I only keep the original cases for the DVDs if I plan to eventually resell or give them away (which means that they won’t stay in my collection long-term), or if I have a special reason (rare). Most of my DVDs are stored in a single binder where they take up very little physical space.

Streaming services actually do have a substantial material presence, they are just more hidden from consumers than with DVDs. Here are a bunch of articles comparing the environmental impact of watching a video via streaming vs. watching a DVD: Popular Science article, Tree Hugger article, and Grist article. Some of the assumptions made in these models are faulty – the Popular Science article assumes everyone drives a car to get a DVD, whereas I have never in my life driven a car to buy or rent a DVD (I’ve only reached DVD rental stores by walking; I’ve bought DVDs by mail order, otherwise I’ve only bought DVDs from stores which I reached by walking or where I was already physically near because of some other activity). But the broader message seems to be that the environmental impact (an impact on the material world) of streaming isn’t really less than for watching a DVD. If a video is going to be watched multiple times (a favorite movie, for example), downloading it or keeping a DVD copy has a significantly lower environmental impact that streaming it each time it is watched.

And we may not know the fully environmental impacts of streaming, cloud services, and other digital activities. According to Bloomberg, “Google considers its water use a proprietary trade secret and bars even public officials from disclosing the company’s consumption”. I suspect that Google isn’t the only company which tries to conceal the volume of material resources it is using, and it is possible that other major data center companies are even more successful at hiding their material resource usage than Google.

And even at the household level, digital media can have a considerable material presence. My dad, who describes himself as a ‘packrat’ when it comes to digital data, keeps on buying new hard drives for all of the digital files he wants to store, and backup, and backup again. Since I don’t try to store anywhere close to as much digital data as my dad does, I generally only need new hard drives / memory disk thingies / etc. when an old one fails.

I’m not saying that keeping digital media or participating in the internet is bad. I’m a blogger for crying out loud. I’m just saying that it’s all real and material.

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