The Immaterial Economy

I’m really not a fan of paid digital content. Sure, I’ve bought indie games on Xbox Live and downloaded paid apps to my phone. I even paid for the Gosford Park soundtrack on mp3 because it was so hard to acquire through less legal means.

Yet to my mind, digital content doesn’t “exist” in the same way that physical products do.

When I buy a CD, book, or game from a store, I own it. It’s in my hand as an individual object that exists as a single entity in the real and physical world. When I buy an mp3 or program or whatever, it isn’t a thing. It’s a notion or concept that depends on other things in order to exist. Nobody ever considers a digital edition of their favourite novel to be a treasured possession, unless perhaps it’s insanely hard to find or digital-only, and nobody ever fought off garden zombies with a box of mp3.

remember these?

Still, I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not really that concerned about the physical properties of these purchases. I have plenty of free digital content which I am more than happy to use. Hell, this and every blog of mine doesn’t count as “real” by my schema, yet I spend a ridiculous amount of time working on and worrying about them.

No, my concerns are more economic.

It takes a certain amount of material and manpower to produce a book or mp3. It takes twice as much material and manpower to produce two identical books, while producing two, six or thirty million identical mp3s costs no more than producing just the one.

When you’re paying for digital content, you’re not paying for a “thing”. At least when you pay for a book, a DVD or a cat-scratching post, you’re paying for the materials that go into making it. Yes, I know that digital content still goes through a production process that costs money and has to be covered by sales, but every single purchase beyond that point increases the profit margin exponentially. Once a digital album has paid for itself, every sale is profit. Once a book launch has paid for itself, it still needs to make more books to encourage more sales.

well, maybe it’s not quite that bad

If Francis Drake can’t pack it in a crate, store it in the hold and ship it round the world, then it isn’t “real” goods, and paying for it is only going to take money out of the physical, material economy and put it into the pockets of retailers, driving up the cost of actual physical goods and materials.The value of your purchase isn’t being passed down the line to anyone in construction or any aspect of industry- for all intents and purposes it simply vanishes.

Maybe I’ve missed something, or maybe this doesn’t matter as much as I think does, and the economy has some sort of reactionary way of dealing with this that I haven’t considered. I’d love to hear what you think over on Crap Looking Books Facebook page or in the comments below.


I’ve made a shorter, less wordy and more gesticulative video of this blog injected with my usually quirkiness, which you can watch you can watch here.