The uncertain future of physical media


By dr. Nic de Jager

The onset of online media streaming in the 1990s gradually took a back seat to physical forms of audiovisual material, such as music records, cassettes, compact discs and digital video discs. The latter refers in particular to the way in which films, music and literature reach the world audience.

Media streaming started with a few experimental broadcasts on the Internet about 30 years ago. The very first live broadcast was a concert by the American rock group, Severe Tire Damage, in 1993. Since then, streaming platforms have gained momentum, and physical media has become an old-fashioned or even inconvenient form of text collection for many.

The so-called CD or DVD (and if we go even further back, the cassette and VHS cassette) were now relics from a bygone era, which had to either be purchased from a retailer or rented from a video store, provided such businesses still opened their doors could keep open. As the speed and signal strength of the internet improved – and more people could access it on their computers, smart televisions or smartphones – our songs, stories and human experiences made a one-way journey into the domain of databases, network servers and software.

The arrival of YouTube in 2005 and Netflix in 2007 particularly strengthened this migration process, and the market for physical media began to suffer. With applications such as Kindle (2007) and other e-readers, books also looked bad there, with an obvious impact on physical book sales around the world. However, e-books are now experiencing a decline in popularity; young people are once again reaching for printed books, proving that this tried and tested form of reading is far from dead.

The question that now arises is whether there is still a place for the slow-turning plate; the cassette that is swallowed by the machine at times; the CD or DVD that sometimes gets stuck; or the book patiently waiting to be taken off the shelf. In this case, or at least from the point of view of this proven text collector, the answer is a definite “yes”.

The physical sources of knowledge and recreation deserve a revival, because if there is a physical copy of a movie, music album or book in your possession, it is yours, and only yours. A certain authenticity, value or spatial gravitas can therefore be linked to these sources, which is rarely the case with their digitized counterparts. Specifically in the case of LPs, it is something you can touch, smell, proudly display in your living space, and hand down to the next generation.

It is not only the product of an artist’s unique idea or vision, but in some cases can hold cultural and monetary value, far beyond expectations. Early pressings of The Beatles’ records are especially highly valued at auctions, and the most valuable record on record (Once Upon A Time in Shaolin by Wu-Tang Clan) is currently estimated at two million dollars. Many collectors, both young and old, will shudder to think how many of these artefacts have been lost in time; they have been neglected, or even lost in the avalanche of the digital revolution

However, the above question does not only lend itself to the “value” of the records, compact discs or books that we still have in our possession. This large-scale migration to digital text consumption also has enormous implications for the film, music and writing industries, because the purchase of physical media still constitutes a large part of their bread and butter. Then it also has a significant impact on the education sector – learners now experience the classroom differently than before, with lightning-fast access to information, and new opportunities for global learning. Furthermore, the research shows that Generation Alpha ‒ who were born after this upheaval ‒ experience serious lags in their attention span, discipline, and reading and writing skills.

There are, of course, logistical and financial issues that may further militate against the proposed revival of physical media. These media are usually expensive and hard to come by in a country like South Africa, where bookstores still thrive, but music and video stores have already been relegated to the past. However, let us reflect on the value and sheer enjoyment that these older forms of media can bring us.

Now is perhaps the best time to read a story in a book again, watch a movie from a DVD player or listen to an album from a record player, and give the “active matrix organic light emitting diodes” of our smartphones a break. give.

  • Nic de Jager is a lecturer attached to the Faculty of Education at Akademia. De Jager’s passion for teaching and education lies in the arts, literature and various digital platforms, and the opportunities these areas offer for creative expression and self-realization.