This article first appeared in issue 232 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
We’ve all experienced it: a naggingly familiar riff that you can’t quite place. This one tortured me for weeks: I’d hear it coming from a passing car, or sense it on a loop underneath an advert for something sporty, or catch the tail end of it as I arrived for the first grudging gym session of the week. It was never on long enough for me to try a music recognition app such as Shazam, and Google isn’t too good at questions like, ‘what’s that song that sounds a bit like, but isn’t, that other song?’.
Eventually, though, I found out what it was – and the answer was depressing on two counts. One, it was by David Guetta, a DJ who couldn’t be any cheesier if he were made from cheddar, daubed with Dairylea and wearing a slab of camembert as a hat. And two, I already own it.
The great unread
It’s not the first time that’s happened. I’ve accumulated an enormous playlist of must-listens that I just haven’t listened to, a huge collection of five star albums, award winners and recommendations from more musically inclined friends that I’ve downloaded or ripped from CD. There’s some cheese, yes, but it’s mainly great lost albums, new records by old favourites and songs you should hear before you die.
It’s not just music, either. Right now my Kindle sits silently, stuffed with must-reads and must-buys that I won’t go near until my next train trip, and I’ve been spending months clicking ‘read later’ … when ‘later’ increasingly means ‘never’.
My music playlists, my Kindle collection, my Instapaper queue... they’ve all grown to the point where they’re so large that I’ve become intimidated by them. Will today be the day that finally I carpe the damned diem and listen to one of the downloads, read one of the ebooks or catch up on one of the articles? Er, probably not.
The sheer size of the to-do list isn’t the big problem, though. The real issue here is that digital content is invisible. I have to stay current with my newspapers, my print magazines and my printed books because if I don’t, I’ll run out of house and end up like one of those poor sods they make documentaries about, a hermit in a room like some crazed rodent’s warren, my life ending underneath a pile of unread Guardian supplements or worthy but never-played Mercury-nominated albums.
Digital, though, is invisible. If I add another 10 books to my Kindle there’s no physical reminder of the fact, no untouched spines sitting in silent judgement as I mess around on Twitter instead of catching up on culture. Playlists don’t make their presence felt until your device or disk runs out of capacity, and there isn’t a point beyond which an Instapaper stack becomes a fire hazard.
I wonder. Never mind piracy: is this the reason why it’s so hard to persuade people to pay for purely digital content? You wouldn’t pay for a meal you’ll never taste, or a trip you’ll never take – and yet I’m paying for media I file and forget.
Photography: Iain MacLean