Physical things break, too: Why I'm going digital

Some say it could be dangerous to trust your possessions to digital living, but tell that to someone who's cleaning out a flooded basement.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
3 min read
It would be nice to trade these boxes for a folder of e-files. Scott Stein/CNET

I spent half of the last weekend doing something sobering: I dragged wet bags of trash out of my parents' flooded basement on Long Island. Up to 7 inches of groundwater rose up after a recent series of rainstorms, and the unfortunate result was that boxes of old papers, books, and childhood possessions were irrevocably waterlogged and destroyed.

We should have gone through the boxes earlier, some years before. Old game systems--the Atari 5200, Sega CD game boxes, piles of Sega Genesis games, and peripherals--had to be thrown out. Electronic board games and puzzles, too. I could put together an amazing slideshow of what was gotten rid of, but it was too painful, and the humidity downstairs was overwhelming. That's not the point.

My real reflection, or observation, came when dealing with notebooks and papers that also had to be thrown out, and albums of photographs that were soaked. Not to trivialize matters, but I had just purchased an iPad the day before--in itself a thing, too, but one that represents the current and coming all-digital and cloud-based lifestyle where books, photos, videos, and even possibly memories are digitized and made intangible. The attack levied on a lifestyle of digital goods is that you don't get to own "the thing," the object that is somehow more valuable than the e-good it's replacing.

Well, tell that to my waterlogged games and books. Right now I'd prefer to re-download the games over PSN, or sync back up to my Kindle app. Yes, digital files can get corrupted, hard drives break, clouds can go haywire and erase mail or documents. But our physical possessions can be destroyed, too. Everything falls apart eventually. I told my parents, who were distraught with losing so many things they saved over the years, that if you think about it, we really don't own anything in our lives. We come, we go, and everything--physical or digital--decays.

So, I'm making a concerted effort more than ever to go digital. Here's how.

My photos and music have already been digital for years, but when I can I'm choosing to make my games disc-free as well, to save space and prevent against physical loss. A PSP Go, Xbox Live Arcade/PSN downloads, and my iPhone/iPad have already started me on this path.

For books, I'm making the switch. I have hundreds of physical books, and as they grow older, dustier, and keep taking up more space, I wonder what that freed shelf space could be used for instead of a heavy library. Between Stanza, Amazon's Kindle app, and iBooks (and free document reader/converters), I feel like I can make my iPad/iPhone into a seamless system for nearly any book that's available in electronic form. I hope to also use the same system to convert my own writing projects into easily readable files without the need for printing.

I've stopped buying DVDs years ago, and my Netflix account has increasingly skewed to instant streaming rather than DVD delivery, despite there being fewer streaming titles. I like Hulu and all ways of viewing that involve little or no physical content.

Yes, DRM is a concern, especially in games, movies, and books. But you also can't lend a book that's been waterlogged and has fallen to pieces, or play a copy of Phantasy Star that's sat in a puddle of water along with its accompanying Master System.

All I need to work on next is a solid system of backup storage. I'm checking out the latest Pogoplug, and will review that soon. Maybe its combination of cloud-like over-the-Internet storage and physical home backup could be the extra security blanket I need for my ever-growing files.

Do you feel like e-books and digitally downloaded games, photos, and movies can be more permanent, in a way, or do you worry about their impermanence? Maybe it takes being confronted with physical damage to consider how good an e-lifestyle could be.