Long ago when I left my parents’ home for far away shores I left behind a mountainous pile of what can be best described as ‘stuff’. This ‘stuff’ consisted primarily of media, in shiny round form in lots and lots of little plastic cases, some of which were then inside unnecessarily big cardboard boxes. When it was finalised that the family house would soon no longer be the family house we were forced to deal with my mountainous pile of stuff.
The old computer games that I whittled my childhood away with were first. Initially the cardboard had to be dealt with, as well as the reams of paper manuals that games used to require. All of that went to the recycling centre and as for the discs, they had to be chucked. The discs, so old and incompatible with the computers we have now were essentially useless to anyone not running a computer they bought 15 years ago. The games that the discs contained are readily available on services such as Steam and Good Old Games, nicely patched up and able to handle the operating environments that were inconceivable when they were first written. However unfortunately for the discs and anyone that abhors waste, the games in their original form were useless, too solidified in a particular era to be used now. They couldn’t even be recycled and it was at that point that I realised how glad I was that I buy my games as a digital download.
Next came the stacks of music CDs, all the albums I had collected since I became aware enough to have a taste in music. They weren’t necessarily useless, but they had become superfluous to my day to day life. All my music now lives on my laptop, backed up across various devices and drives. The physicality of discs is too much of a burden in both storage and inflexibility. I went through them one by one, remembering where I had bought them and if there were any poignant experiences that had them as a soundtrack. Their songs were copied onto the laptop, catalogued by various online music database systems and then the discs were sent off to Music Magpie, who paid me an average of 30p per disc. A significant devaluation from the average of £7-£12 they cost back in the height of CD dominance. Some discs survived the purge, quite what my criteria was I was unsure of even at the time of choosing. Some I knew I wanted to keep to show my children, others just seemed to exude an aura of significance in their physical form. They seemed to have developed an identity more significant to me than simple exchangeable commodity, but I still couldn’t tell you exactly why.
Yet in a strange antithesis to this story, the media I acquired most of over the christmas period was books in tangible wood pulp with black ink form. A format relatively unchanged for centuries and surely due for a reboot considering the relatively short life cycles of other media. Yet rather than preparing myself for the great bookshelf exodus, I’m instead eagerly buying more. Every one is significantly placed on my office shelves and to me the ownership is solidified as a lifetime relationship. The concept that I would rid myself of them is absurd, they will be with me for as long as I exist.
There was also another type of media that had incredible significance and demanded proper archival treatment. Amongst the various boxes and cases lay recordable CDs, unlabelled but clearly used. Before going to University I was in a band, and I have always considered it to be a significant part of my life. Due to the diligence and sacrifice of one of our party, we were fortunate enough to have our own studio. This gave us the opportunity to record songs when the mood took us, and these songs were usually burnt onto CDs to be taken home for review. These recordable, unlabelled and unarchived CDs had the potential to be those studio discs. This led to a night of exploration, going through them disc by disc searching to see what was contained. Many of them were nothing of significance but a few contained biographical gold, including one which essentially amounted to a definitive archive of all artwork, promotional posters, photos, management correspondence and some raw audio data. All of this was swiftly copied to the laptop, backed up and then the discs carefully noted, ready to be stored for an unknown period; perhaps until disc drives are driven to obsolesce.
So why have I bothered spending a significant amount of time that I should be working, on writing about going through my old junk? I wasn’t that sure myself when I decided to, but now I think I understand the significance. Firstly, these media though eventually disposable, had a significance to me in my life. My everyday life and the objects I surrounded myself with were intertwined. Disposing of much of the media was emotionally distressing to a degree, because it was in some way connected to a certain period of my life, which is significantly different to the one I’m in now. Although I am now glad to be rid of much of it, the process itself was difficult. This difficulty highlighted quite how much of a significance I place in even the most disposable of things.
Secondly, I got the feeling when I was disposing of those old discs, that I wouldn’t be doing it again. That I was contributing to my eventual disassociation from physically instantiated media. Moving further away from the concept of media as object, and closer to the idea of media as effervescent flux, as message in and of itself. That may be why I, like many other people, cling to the idea of the instantiated book. It is a reference point in history, an object type that gives us a stability to say where we are in time. We can conceive of a time when the CD was not here, and thus understand quite readily that a time will come where it is not here again, but books are different. Books have always and will always be, because the idea that they won’t be is frightening.
Corey Doctorow described the significance of books better than I could at his speech to the National Reading Summit last year which I thoroughly encourage a read of.
The title of this post is a small homage to Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name. You can read excerpts here or the full piece in the collection of essays ‘Illuminations’.