In the Flesh

Physical Things in a Digital World

“I’ll see you in an hour,” my partner said, disappearing into the crowds. What a rare treat I thought, as she melted into the throng. A whole hour to myself, in the centre of town.

I had an hour of guilt-free browsing to spend recklessly. No laptop. No tablet. Nothing to tether me to deadlines or emails. Where first? A flick through used CDs or the monastic atmosphere of the second hand book store?

I set off in the direction of my favourite record shop. CDs three for £10 when last I looked. Many of the discs in my current collection came from binge buying at that very store.

It wasn’t there. In its stead, a generic mobile phone shop.

Pattern momentarily interrupted, I flicked through the mental rolodex of other CD shops that I knew nearby. HMV, closed. Big Tree records, closed. Polar Bear, closed… I’d bought records from all those stores. And back, further, vinyl from Woolworths and John Menzies. Closed and closed.

Come to think of it — how many of those records did I still own? A small sub-set of the original wall of sound. A corner of a cupboard, now. And CDs? Long ago transferred from plastic disc to cloud; the carcasses hawked on eBay.

Perhaps I could idle away the minutes flicking through books instead?

Waterstones is a British book retailer. Waterstones still exists. Good old Waterstones.

Once at the high end of the market, it’s now famous for its permanent three for the price of two offer. You go in to buy one book, you always come out with three. At least, that’s what I used to do. But, now…

Three real books is such an investment in terms of physical effort and space. Of carrying and then storage. And the other two books are usually make-weight. Books you barely wanted.

But — here’s the sting — if you buy one book, you rip yourself off. You come out feeling cheated.

And that’s when the paradigm shift occurred. A moment of Satori.

I took out my phone and took a photo of a book I wanted. The one book I wanted.

With that photo I walked out of the book shop and into a coffee house. There, over an Americano, I downloaded a free sample chapter to my phone and began to read it. I unravelled the tangled earbud cables in my pocket and launched Spotify.

For the last 45 minutes of my free hour, I read my new book and listened to a recording of Satie’s Gymnopedies.

If you were here for the blog-like moment of personal revelation, then you can stop reading. That was it. That’s all that happened.

But later, I found myself querying the experience; asking myself what it meant. This is what I came up with.

It is a cliché to see the shift to digital media entirely as a series of losses. The loss most discussed is the physical sensation of interacting with objects. Holding a book in your hand and marking progress by bending the corner of a page. We have mourned the loss of the listening experience that was special to vinyl. The reverence that we gave to the act of unwrapping; the study of the record sleeve as we listened.

But we speak much less of the psycho-geographic loss of these objects. They used to exist in designated spaces, in nodes within our network of physical locations. There were special places we filled with these objects. The book store and the record shop. Places where we bought DVDs and computer games too. They are still there, but they are few.

Now they are anachronistic with their desperate offers and finite stock.

Our visits to these locations would once unlock a pattern of browsing ritual; of time spent (wasted, killed) in analogue search activity. A pleasant, physical, informative and visual audit of objects in spaces, of material choice and consumption.

Now, these objects are mostly virtual. We browse for them instantly and algorithmically. We search for them, we see them and then we have them.

There is no time to kill.

There is no space to explore.

Both time and space have been compressed into the binary. The binary of the digital and the binary of have not/ have. Either state is near instantaneous.

What do we do with these spaces now? If they exist at all, they are repositories for the archaic, nostalgic and ephemeral. They are museums and they are catalogues. They contain the physical avatars of digital things.

I have 45 minutes left to wait for my partner to return and, though I share this public space with other human beings, I have retreated to a binary bubble. I can read and listen and watch on demand. There is no need to explore the physical space. I have all the tools I need to kill 45 minutes in the centre of town in my pocket.

Until the battery runs out.