Disk Media Nostalgia

It turns out that moving to a new place is a good catalyst to Marie Kondo the house, and it’s particularly therapeutic—though proportionally time-consuming—to work through piles of stuff accumulated over the decades, from sleeping in a living room through college to multiple shared apartments to eventually our own single-family home. There are the big items: TVs and dressers; beds and mattresses; tables and sofas and chairs. But inevitably, there are a bunch of boxes that weren’t even opened from the last move, and these time capsules provide some natural breaks from the tedium of packing.

As I’ve worked my way into the closet this past week, I found a bunch of boxes filled to the brim with old CDs and DVDs1. Initially, it was an absolute revelation to be able to store media on these little plastic disks; cheap to buy and easy to store, they also enabled music and movies at a time when the alternatives were bulky cassette tapes, VCR tapes, or simply whatever was available over the radio or broadcast television. At the time, I distinctly remember a thriving industry in Asia in the 90s and 2000s, revolving around low-quality pirated movies sold by the dozens.

The dynamics shifted when people were able to make their own disks, buying these workhorse 4× CD-R drives that could rip 700MBs worth of a movie—or a music album—in about 20 minutes’ time. That capability easily scaled out to enable indiscriminate copying…uh, “backing up,” of whatever looked interesting, an early but prominent form of data hoarding. These boxes I opened are my relics of that era.

Of course, in the year 2021, all of this is obsolete, and not only from the suspect data preservation issues as a result of disc rot. The physical act of finding and inserting a disc, not to mention the actual complicated read and write speeds of spinning disc drives handling detachable media, feel abysmally slow in a world with fiber-optic data connections, USB 3.2/Thunderbolt transfer speeds, and late-generation SSDs. It also feels antiquated to keep around a collection of movies when the vast majority of it is easily accessible via online streaming platforms, likely at higher quality with more features like actual subtitles2.

But beyond the lack of convenience, I think the big knock against keeping a “just in case I want to watch it again” collection is today’s sheer abundance of available media. There’s already too much to watch, where the prior golden age of television has now turned into just an arms race of more shows and movies across dueling streaming services, plus whatever bite-sized entertainment comes through on YouTube and TikTok. In other words, the bar to rewatch something has risen, just because there’s so many new things competing for our attention.

But…there’s something to be said for simple nostalgia, so I broke out an Amazon Basics disc drive, and handbrake‘d a couple of shows. Just in case.

  1. They were novel to my grade school kids, just in terms of the shininess on the disc backs.

  2. Some old HK movies are unintentionally hilarious that way.

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