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In a digital world, we are not defined by the media we own

The other day, a story about how people are still buying DVDs caught my eye – and it got me thinking.

The other day, a story about how people are still buying DVDs caught my eye – and it got me thinking. According to the Ars Technica article, which cites a report by consumer tracking firm NPD Group, online video streaming – the likes of Netflix et al – is growing but the overwhelming majority of people still buy and rent DVDs.

About 77% of people who reported watching a movie between January and March did so on DVD or Blu-ray, versus only 21% who did so through some sort of on-demand service on their TV.

As the NPD analyst put it:

“With the well publicized struggles of Blockbuster and retail video stores closing around the country, and with media attention increasingly focused on the newest digital home-video offerings, the value and importance of physical formats to the home video industry and to consumers is often overlooked. Even though DVD sales and rentals are slowing, there is no evidence that consumers are abandoning physical discs for watching movies, even as the choices for viewing are expanding.”

The story brought to mind some things I’ve been pondering for some time. I’ve been wondering why people still buy movies. I’ve also been wondering why people ever bought movies.

I’m as guilty as the next person. I’m a movie buff and have amassed a decent collection of DVDs, while my Blu-ray collection is respectable. But I browsed my collection the other day and realized that I’ve only ever watched about 5% more than once. That’s an awful lot of wasted money. The discs also take up a lot of space, require dusting and are a pain in the event of moving house.

The same goes double for books. I’m always hungering for something new to read, so I can probably count the number of books I’ve read more than once on one hand. I buy them and they just sit there. CDs are a similar story, although they generally get more mileage. Still, I’ve found that as I get older my tastes tend to settle more and more around a few selected artists. I can’t remember the last time I’ve listened to half my CDs.

A lot of people believe we’re heading toward a cloud-based future, if we’re not there already, where we don’t actually own physical copies of our media. Our books, movies and music will instead exist on the internet, where we can access them from wherever we are and whenever we want. Netflix is already a great example of this for movies, while a number of internet companies are looking to do the same with music (I wrote about them for MSN, that story should be up soon). The benefits of such a world are obvious: we don’t have to store, clean and move our media, yet we can get it whenever we want.

So why do people still buy physical media, like DVDs? Well, obviously digital technology is still improving and many people aren’t yet fully comfortable with it. But there’s a deeper reason: Whether it’s books, DVDs or CDs, we have built collections of physical media in order to define ourselves as people.

Such collections have served as chronicles of our lives and personalities. Our media, usually displayed as a mini-museum in our living room, tells others the story of who we are and it reminds us of how we got there. Want to learn a good deal about a person? Take a look at their CD or movie collection. “Oh, I see you have the entire Cure collection. You must like being depressed. The entire Robotech cartoon series on DVD? I see that you’re a nerd.” And so on. Conversely, you may look at a particular book on the shelf and remember reading it in high school, thereby recalling pleasant (or terrible) memories.

As more and more people go all digital – and they will because the benefits are undeniable – this is going to change. Our living rooms will no longer be shrines to who we are and were. There’s going to be a lot more space, perhaps for plants or artwork – possibly even that which we create ourselves, like photos displayed in digital frames.

But with this digital shift, will the need to define ourselves by media be obviated? Not likely – but it too is going to morph. Millions of people already list their favourite movies and bands on their Facebook profiles and in other social media. These online services are the digital equivalents of book shelves and CD holders. There’s a big difference, though, because in the online world you can define yourself by what you say you like, as opposed to the real world where there is physical evidence.

By abandoning the physical proof of who we are and were, our identities are inexorably shifting to what we want them to be as opposed to what they really are. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. I’m still puzzling it out.

One thing is for sure: if you own stock in a company that makes shelving units, you’d probably be smart to sell it.

Peter Nowak is an award-winning journalist and author of the best-selling book Sex, Bombs and Burgers. He has been a staff writer for the CBC, National Post and New Zealand Herald, while his work has appeared in the Boston Globe, South China Morning Post, Sydney Morning Herald and the Globe and Mail, among others. His personal blog can be found at