The Case for Physical Media

Juan Villela

We often hear, “What goes online, stays online.” However, the reality is far from that. The internet is not a static repository of our digital footprints but rather a dynamic and constantly evolving ecosystem that changes with advances in technology and corporate decisions. This reality is especially evident in video game preservation and the broader context of digital content consumption.

A study by the Video Game History Foundation and the Software Preservation Network uncovered a concerning fact: 87% of classic video games in the U.S. are at risk of being lost. This statistic highlights the fragile nature of digital content, which, unlike physical media, can vanish due to changes in digital platforms and formats.

The decline of Adobe Flash, once a dominant force for online gaming and animation, illustrates this point. Initiatives like Flashpoint strive to save these games, but they face significant challenges due to the rapid pace of technological change.

The issue extends beyond gaming. CNET removed older articles to enhance its search engine rankings, a practice known as “content pruning”. This approach, while beneficial for online visibility, erodes the historical record of the internet.

A recent situation involving PlayStation further emphasizes the transient nature of digital ownership. PlayStation users learned their purchased Discovery content would be removed from their libraries without refunds. This decision, affecting over 1,200 titles, underscores a worrying trend: even digital media purchased by consumers can be taken away.

These developments make a strong case for the value of physical media. Owning a physical copy of a game, movie, or album ensures actual ownership, free from the constraints of digital platforms and licensing agreements. Physical media provides a sense of permanence and personal ownership that digital formats cannot match, evoking nostalgia for a time when collecting tangible items was a way to preserve memories.

The impermanence of digital content highlights the importance of physical media. While digital formats offer convenience, they lack physical copies’ permanence and personal connection. However, physical media has its downsides. It requires storage space, is prone to wear and tear, and its production has environmental impacts. Despite these drawbacks, physical media offers a reliable way to preserve content.

The Wayback Machine attempts to capture parts of the web, but this effort is daunting. The internet’s constant evolution makes complete archiving nearly impossible, highlighting the limitations and challenges of digital preservation. This complex task is challenged by technological changes and business models prioritizing profit over preservation. The video game industry, for example, often overlooks its history, leading to cultural losses.

Projects like the Internet Archive and Flashpoint represent efforts to safeguard our digital past. They reflect our desire to remember and preserve our stories despite the fragile nature of our digital existence.

Navigating the internet’s landscape raises questions about what we value and choose to preserve. While the internet’s impermanence allows for innovation, it comes at the cost of losing our digital history. Efforts to protect this history are essential for connecting to our past.

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