Rethinking Sustainable Design: Question 4 – Digital

Do you believe that the internet has the potential to limit the amount of overly packaged dvds, cds, and blu rays that are produced per year? Or will people cling to the “realness” of these objects because they are tangible, and not simply located on the internet?

I will use myself as example of practice-based social change. As you saw in the lectures, I have a large number of books and cds. So the builk of my life to date has been clinging to the material conveyors of that information. Having grown up with a decade of Microsoft software fails, I have an ingrained distrust of computers and the internet. Nevertheless, for a couple of reasons, I found myself having to buy some digital copies of books and cds.

In the case of the former, I needed some books quickly that were not available in libraries or local bookstores. Rather than wait a couple of days for an Amazon delivery, I bought some digital copies. At the same time, I was beginning to use Instapaper on my iPhone which lets you direct longer web articles in plain text to your phone to read on your commute. All of a sudden, I found myself reading books digitally. When I was travelling and left my hardcopy reading material in my checked-in bag, I downloaded some Franzen novels, and they completed my adoption of the screen-reading practice. I do not only purchase digital books now. Many books are still not available digitally. But more importantly, I have developed a kind of hierarchy in relation to book purchases: books that are perennial, that I would like to read slowly, that I will be making ongoing use of – that is, mostly philosophy texts – tend be the sort I will still buy in hardcopy form. Books that provide only timely information (which includes fiction) are definitely the sort that I will buy digitally. (Notice that this is a kind of Life Cycle thinking by accident: the books that are materials intense will be the ones that will be used for the longest, amortizing their materials intensity with product life extension.) There is of course a huge range of books in the middle, and part of my ongoing development of the practice of using digital books, will be to make margin calls one way or the other.

When I migrated to NYC, I shipped my then 500 CDs (now 700) uninsured, and was terrified about losing my most valued possessions. I am addicted to obscure contemporary classical or post classical, mostly minimalist music. When I moved into a small apartment, I couldn’t afford a large stereo, both in terms of money and space (and noise), so I have the headphone set I showed in lectures. This got me more used to listening to music on headphones which allowed me to migrate some of my listening to my laptop and iphone. Again, because of the ‘long tail’ obscurity of the music I like, in the last few years it has become easier to find digital copies of the music I like than to find CDs, and certainly it is a lot quicker. The seamlessness of the iTunes process, and arrival of some clever social recommending online music sites (e.g., LastFM), again sealed the deal for me. So now the majority of my music purchases are digital. Again, not all. I have residual snobbish hifi questions about the quality of commercial mp3s, so more fully orchestrated acoustic music (in the traditional classical sense) I like to buy as a CD even if I later rip it into iTunes.

A big test for me in relation to trusting the reliability of data over hardcopy was when my laptop died and I had to do a massive file transfer to a new laptop. In the end, it was all successful.

The moral of this long story is that, to my mind, people will transfer to the more immaterial aspects of information-based things like books and music, when they find ways of adopting the practices associated with digital files. Trusting that the data will be there in the absence of it being inscribed in some materials (whether pages or CDs) is, I think, something that flows from the adopted practice (and its ecosystem), rather than something that must be present for someone to adopt the practice in the first place.

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