Does Digital Media Make Physical Artifacts Obsolete?

Illustration for article titled Does Digital Media Make Physical Artifacts Obsolete?

Today, diggers unearthed a cache of Atari 2600 game cartridges in a New Mexico landfill. Game aficionados have told the urban legend around the buried games for decades. Now I'm wondering: in a world of digital-only media, will this sort of discovery cease to exist? What do you think?

Advertisement

I'm sort of torn about it. Digital media only really gets "lost" if it's deleted (purposely or inadvertently) or if the device it's stored on is misplaced. Thirty years from now, if someone's kid stumbles upon a rogue copy of Flappy Bird, it'll most likely be because he or she found a dusty old smartphone. So which is the relic—the phone, or the apps installed on it?

On the other hand, perhaps our increasingly-intangible digital world is driving us to find the satisfaction of physical artifacts in other ways. Witness the newfound interest in vinyl records even as MP3s become the standard music format.

Advertisement

And of course, there's the fact that, with digital copies of everything, there's a safety net that helps prevent media from being lost. Hell, I can play an online version of that terrible E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game without ever having to set a finger on an Atari 2600. The physical cartridges they dug up in New Mexico weren't sought out to be played.

So what's your take? Will people still hunt down cultural relics when we're living in the cloud? When the content isn't attached to physical media, what will the artifact be?

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

mattnovak
Matt Novak

I've got to take issue with this, Bob:

Digital media only really gets "lost" if it's deleted (purposely or inadvertently) or if the device it's stored on is misplaced.

Even if they're more or less intact 100 years from now, storage media like DVDs and hard drives will fail.

I realize that I'm a bit of an extremist, but every digital journal article I read gets printed out and eventually bound in a collection. And I regularly make Blurb books of the digital photos that I care about. I also still buy physical books.

I admire people who are hyper-vigilant about moving their media from yesterday's storage device to the next, but I think the vast majority of files being created right now will be lost to history. Converting various media to deadtrees isn't always practical, but it's the best back-up system we've devised so far.