The surfeit of content: Life in the post-optical world

As William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed.” A few years ago I thought streaming video was an impossible dream. Networks were too slow, we said, and no one cared about streaming. A few us held the torch high and shouted in a stentorian voice “We shall stream!” but it was still not to be. We had TiVo, but that was securely ensconced on a hard drive in a box that sat next to my TV. I could get some video online – there were brief glimmers of hope with sites like SurftheChannel and their ilk (basically, web-based piracy sites) and Google Video which promised full-length films online. But I always stuck by Netflix and DVDs. I recall now that when my son was born, three years ago, we were on the 3 DVD/ unlimited choice plan on Netflix. Now, with my new daughter mewling by the TV, I’m on the 1 DVD/streaming plan. Things are changing drastically.

I have 83 movies on my Roku box. I have video-on-demand – from Netflix – on my Xboxen and on my desktops. I have easy access to movie rentals and purchases on multiple devices in my gadget constellation and, if I so desired, I could have downloaded – with dubious legality – the entire Oscar contender list in about four hours for playback on my hacked Apple TV. Hulu and other sites offer TV downloads. All this leads to a few important points. Please allow me to ruminate.

The first is the death of optical media. In no way is optical media superior to streaming and storage except for the important aspects of archiving and ownership. At this point Blu-ray is at the very best a system for connoisseurs and at the very least a dead-end solution to the streaming problem. I understand that other countries might get a big kick out of DVDs, but expect developing countries, when given the infrastructure, to bypass Blu-ray entirely.

The second point is that we are giving up our rights to content and I doubt my son’s generation will care. His sense of media ownership will be stunted and our vociferous crusades online and off will be for naught. Who cares about DRM and copyright when everything is available right here, right now? Convenience will degrade our righteous anger at EULAs and the industry will be able to remake their business into a form of content arbitrage, releasing videos to various platforms and taking the pennies they will receive for each play.

Just as many of us are deploring the rise of ebooks and the loss of that “old book” smell, will we, as geriatric post-new-media-retirees be missing that “old DVD smell?”

This is the end of optical media, friends. Here’s hoping the industries that used to press things onto disks will now know how to push things into the stream. I know this is an old and hackneyed point, but the very thought that I now have too many movies to watch, potentially in my lifetime, is a bit frightening. And all of this happened in about the space of three years. Your thoughts?