7 Major Ways We're Digitizing Our World, and 3 Reasons We Still Want Hardcopies

laptop with worn trackpad

Andrew Magill / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The digitization of our world has been a forward march for years now; still, it might be surprising to step back and look at how physical copies of our stuff have changed into something else entirely. And even more surprising might be to go beyond the debate of the level of pleasantness of reading a paperback book versus an e-book on a Kindle and look at how digitizing everything might save space and shrink the environmental footprint of everything we produce, but also put the longevity of our information at risk.

1. Books to E-Books

Of course this is at the top of the list. Statistics show that 1 in 10 Americans own an e-reader, and those who do own one tend to read more books than those without. And there's also the fact that schools are testing out how devices like iPads can be used in classrooms instead of textbooks and hand-outs. Our books are without a doubt headed toward a greater digital presence, though printed books don't seem to be slowing any time soon.

2. DVDs to Streamed Movies and Television

We thought DVDs were such a huge technological advancement over VHSs, and yet here are DVDs being shown up by streaming movies and television shows online. While Netflix still does a hefty business shipping DVDs around the country, many people seem to have taken to streaming their movies, watching what they want instantly. In fact, movie studios and television networks are also keen to allow people to stream content, rather than waiting for physical copies to be released and shipped out.

3. CDs to MP3s

This one is fairly old hat. CDs have been replaced by MP3s on a large scale. It seems most people download their music to play on their phones or MP3 players, rather than stack up a massive collection of disks, and those who still have their collection of disks are also putting them on their computers so they can access them in that way as well. Turning music into media files rather than actual records seems to be the norm.

4. Road Maps to GPS

When was the last time you bought a Rand McNally? It's now easy to get our hands on a GPS device like Garmin or TomTom, or simply use navigation features on iPhones and smart phones. Or we can hop online to get Google directions anywhere, rather than pouring over a map to find the best way to get from point A to point B. All our maps can now be accessed through computers and phones with rapidly updated information, rather than paper maps that are quickly outdated.

5. Photos to Flickr

The latest statistic we came across is that some 2.5 billion photos are uploaded to Facebook each and every month. And Flickr is the huge sensation for photosharing on the web. Our modern cameras from DSLRs to point-n-shoots to camera phones have made it easy to keep our images in digital format, and printing has changed to something left only for art or special occasions, rather than a must-do every time a roll of film is developed and you want to show a family vacation to friends. It'd be interesting to find out what fraction of our photos today actually ever even make it to printed form.

6. Snail Mail to E-mail

Oh we still see the junk mail pouring in, but for the most part, snail mail has transitioned to a digital format. Most companies offer some form of online billing so customers never have to see a paper bill, and we can even access our catalogs online rather than getting them in our mailboxes. From business correspondence to letters among friends, most of our daily mail is now found on our computers.

7. Magazines and Newspapers to Online Databases

Hardcopies of magazines and journals are still quite popular, though digital versions are being produced at a faster pace, especially after the advent of the iPad. Newspapers are quickly dying, though, because most of us now read our news on websites, scrolling through our RSS feeds, scanning our favorite news sources, or clicking articles shared on sites from Digg to Yahoo to Google.

Problems With Digital Technology

1. Digital Information Can Go up in Smoke

Think of when you lost your entire term paper because your hard drive crashed. Remember how that felt? Now imagine that, only instead of a term paper, it's every episode of a daily podcast aired over the last five years. Every single episode gone forever.

That's part of the danger of our digitized world -- we don't know how to store things for safe keeping hundreds of years into the future. And without stable hardcopies, everything that has been "born digital" is at risk. This is pointed out in a somewhat hair-raising report called "The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age".

From the BBC:

[The report] reiterates the long-established fact that many digital media such as recordable CDs have a lifetime significantly shorter than earlier technologies. But it also raises the point that some media are not being captured at all.
"We're finding that some of the older media like shellac discs and vinyl discs are quite stable, and if stored in reasonably good conditions will last another hundred or two hundred years," said Sam Brylawski, co-author of the report.
"'Born digital' audio - things that are disseminated on the internet through websites or podcasts - are at great risk. We need to be able to have a process to harvest them and sustain the files," he told BBC News.

Preserving our digitized versions of everything from photos to music to movies and books is of vital importance. What was once the fear of a fire breaking out at a library is now the fear of hard drives going up in smoke. Even more information than what can be stored in an entire building can be stored in a couple solid state drives. It goes to show that we're always at risk of losing recorded knowledge and art, no matter what its form.

2. Information Hoarding is a Time Suck

Having everything be just a mouse-click away is really helpful -- but it can also be a big drain on our bodies and our time. We have access to endless news articles, videos, books and blog entries, and it's tempting to want to absorb as much as possible during a day. You want to be hip, worldly, well-informed and that's great. But what about forgetting all the incoming data and just going outside for a walk -- without GPS telling you at which corner to turn, or the latest song from Katy Perry playing on your iPod. All this information available on one laptop has a way of slurping up whole days before you notice it's night time again and you still have 6,478 articles you want to bookmark before you close your browser. Instant info can make us a whole new breed of hoarder.

From Technology Review:

The difference between information hoarding and the regular kind is that information hoarding has the potential to be invisible. No one knows how much unlistened-to music, unread material or unwatched movies you have stored on your hard drive, unless your habit has grown so out of control that you're one of those people with a network-attached home RAID array.
What's more, nothing in the internet economy, which revolves solely around the ability of people like me to waste the time of people like you, has any stop signs or warning labels affixed to it. Who could possibly argue with being more knowledgeable, more connected, more informed?

Yep -- it's one thing to bring home books until your house can't hold anymore and you have to stop, but there's no real space limitations when it comes to e-books. And owning a Kindle doesn't mean you magically read faster. All our non-stuff can sometimes be worse than our "real" stuff.

3. It's Not Necessarily Better for the Environment

Digitization is usually hailed as a boon for the environment. No more felled trees for books!! But that's not necessarily the case. The digitized versions of our stuff still comes at a physical cost. The actual device that is used to access it and the resources it takes to manufacture, ship, and run that device. As well as the physical cost to ourselves. For example, we might not have to use any paper, ink or chemicals to print photos but uploading them to Facebook contributes to the company's over $1 million per month electricity bill and boost the need for it to build yet another data center. It still takes a lot of electronics to make and run the information we keep in digital format.

While e-books are great for replacing paper books, the most recent calculations estimate that people need to read at least 100 books a year on their e-readers to break even with books on environmental impact. And there's of course the end-of-life issue of the device -- it's a lot more difficult to recycle an e-reader than a paper book.

Another example is our ability to get our news online. It's great that we don't need to have paper versions trucked to delivery outlets and driven to our homes every morning, numbers show that the environmental impact is even if you read online for less than 30 minutes a day. After that, factors like what kind of electricity is powering your computer come into important play.

Digitization doesn't mean making the physical impact of media and information disappear. It just changes it. It definitely has the potential to lessen the environmental damage our obsession with "stuff" has on the planet -- if you own 1,000 digital songs or 10,000 digital songs, the impact isn't that different -- but right now those benefits are still hairy primarily because of electricity and e-waste.