Beyond removing clutter, the digital revolution also saves us a ton of money and increases access. Center director Jeffrey Cole explains how this works.
By Jeffrey Cole
In my last column, I looked at how the Internet has unexpectedly become the best “de-clutterer” we have ever seen. Today, the content that we used to collect and store with photographs, self-made videos, books, CDs, and DVDs has all moved to digital where it takes up absolutely no space in our lives. We also have access to far more content than we ever thought possible, and it is easily transportable.
In this column, I want to look beyond the space we save by looking at the money we free up by not maintaining physical media. The total saved is quite impressive.
1. Photos and self-made videos — Think of all the effort and expense 20 years ago when we prepared to take pictures on a one-month vacation. Assuming we needed eight rolls of film, we had to find a place that stocked the film. This was not usually a problem, but we had to go there, the store had to have enough in stock, and we had to decide on the speed.
The cost of eight rolls came to about $65 (these are averages and, of course, there was great variance). We had to pack the film and load it into the camera. We might come to the picture-of-a-lifetime and run out of film. (For those readers under 30, film came in 20 or 36 shots a roll.) If it was the picture-of-a-lifetime, we would take three or more pictures to make sure we got a good one. When we got home, we dropped the film at a processor.
Twenty-five years ago, processing took eight-to-10 days; by the end of the film era it was down to 1-Hour Photo Booths. The cost of printing 36 pictures was about $12.
The total cost of buying and processing eight rolls of film came to about $148 for our vacation. To that cost we might have added enlargements and photo albums as well as the cost of the camera, flash bulbs, and other accessories. This was for one vacation. Add the cost of holiday, graduation, special events, and everyday life, and it is clear that over a 20-year period, for one family the cost of photography would have come to many thousands of dollars and taken up a great deal of physical space.
Today, with digital photography we take many (if not hundreds of times) more pictures, both because photography has no direct costs and also because we always have a camera with us. Plus our photos are always with us so we can share them with anybody, anywhere we go; they aren’t in boxes at home.
2. Books — How many books you own depends on how much you love to read (or what your major was in school). Today, the average hardcover fiction book costs about $22.95, and the average hardcover non-fiction book costs about $35. Even paperback books come in between $13-25. Many people consider their physical books as part of their home furnishings to be shown to the rest of the world (whether we have read them or not).
In the last column, I argued that we will continue to buy beautiful books filled with pictures and art, but most other books will move to e-books. The average e-book costs between $9.95 and $14.95 for (combining fiction and non-fiction), an average savings of $15-19 a book (these are estimates and averages).
As a history major with about 3,000 books, I could have saved immense amounts of space and about $51,000 in today’s dollars, not including the cost of bookshelves. (Non-history majors would not have spent this much on books.) Today’s history majors will have as many books, will save $51,000, and can have their books anywhere they are on the Earth’s surface. And, unlike in my case, they will not have to face the painful day of giving thousands of books to the local library to eliminate much of the stuff in my life.
3. CDs and DVDs — I have 400 CDs sitting on my shelves. They cost an average of $16 a disk for a total of $6,400.
Last summer, I went though my CDs and asked myself, “If I could have bought the songs one-by-one, how many of these CDs contained music where I would have bought more than two songs?” There were 18 — or just four percent (including Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Eagles’ Greatest Hits).
When I look at my 400 CDs, I see all this music I treasure. But, I also see thousands of dollars I would not have spent if I had a choice. And, sadly, that $6,400 only bought me a small slice of the music I would have liked to own.
Today, the content that we used to collect and store with photographs, self-made videos, books, CDs and DVDs has all moved to digital where it takes up absolutely no space in our lives. We also have access to far more content than we ever thought possible, and it is easily transportable.
Today, for $10 a month (or free with advertising) we can get access to Spotify. We get all the music we could ever want, can edit it to just the music we love, and it takes no space and follows us around the world. A great convenience. The cost of Spotify (if we pay for no ads) comes to $120 a year or 7.5 CDs.
Movies are a little more complicated to calculate. I own about 200 DVDs at an average cost of about $28 each for a total of $5,600. As with music, that is only a fraction of the film content I would like to own. Today, a $10 a month subscription to Netflix gives me a great deal of old film and television and an extraordinary array of original programming.
That $10 a month may provide the average household all the content it wants, but there is much more that is not available on Netflix. Until there is a Spotify of film that gives you practically everything ever made (there would be a big market for this and perhaps Netflix or someone else may create two services of the history of film and originals), let’s assume the average household also streams about two additional movies a month at $5 each. With Netflix that comes to $20 a month. The savings, while important, is not nearly as dramatic as with other media.
In past columns, I have talked a great deal about MoviePass. Instead of spending an average of $9.16 (the national average) to see a film in the theater ($16 in NY), for $9.95 a month, MoviePass subscribers can see one movie a day in the theater. It’s an extraordinary deal, which is why MoviePass is not sustainable in its current form.
By taking most of the cost out of moviegoing, MoviePass has made people willing to go out to films much more and also to take a chance on smaller, less publicized films. While we can say the average MoviePass subscriber might be going to four films a month for $9.95 instead of paying $40 in admissions, they never would have paid for those admissions in the first place.
In other words, MoviePass does not actually save the average consumer money on moviegoing. Instead, because seeing a film in the theater is so expensive, most consumers were not going very often, preferring to watch Netflix at home.
Last summer, I went though my CDs and asked myself, “If I could have bought the songs one-by-one, how many of these CDs contained music where I would have bought more than two songs?” There were 18 — or just four percent.
Unlike Spotify, which gives people access to all the music you already know you want and lets you discover more, and smartphone photography, which eliminates the care and cost of the photos people were already taking, what MoviePass really does is get people to consume media they otherwise would have avoided.
It really is extraordinary how much we spend on media in our lives. For Boomers, it has been thousands of dollars for photos, videos, books, CDs and DVDs (not to mention, LPs, 8-Tracks, audio cassettes, Laser Disks and more). People under 30 get to save all this money, avoid clutter in their homes, and get immediate access anywhere to their content– a great deal.
There has also been one more unexpected behavioral change coming from digital. Over the past generations, whenever people are asked what they would try to save if their home were on fire (after protecting their loved ones including pets), the overwhelming first answer has almost always been their irreplaceable photos. Today, if there is a fire, we know our pictures, music, film and personal records are secure in the cloud.
It’s interesting to wonder what would we grab first now.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
May 23, 2018