(Re)Balancing atoms and bits

Several years ago, I blogged about how I winnowed atom-based content at that time. When I consider my increasingly digital life now, I smile at how out-dated that post seems.

Maybe some day I’ll let go of my hardcopy altogether and go 100% digital.

Almost two years after my winnowing (paper-based) content post, I briefly waxed sentimental about personal content management. Judging by that post’s imagery, I’m not sure how much “evolution” had actually occurred. I do know that the binders of paper were eventually tosed outright, but even a quick glance at my current technical library at home tells me that I have far from reached any “evolved” state.

As a visual person, I tend to value what I can see and tangibly interact with. Books present a particular challenge to me. A good book, in hard cover format especially, is immediately available to give to someone else as a loan or a gift (e.g. from one generation to the next). The same book in electronic format is more subject to the winds of technology (e.g. will there be a reader for this format? what all is required to actually read the book in terms of supporting hardware and software? etc.). On the other hand, if I took the time to bookmark or otherwise annotate paper, this could distract subsequent reading by others–electronic metadata should be more distinctly layered and separable from original content.

Given the choice between hunter or gatherer in a shopping context, I’m definitely a hunter. Put me in the middle of a men’s department or clothing store and I’ll happily panoramically scan the selection, deciding in mere seconds whether there is something for me (to killpurchase), or not. (Thankfully, my wife is my primary wardrobe consultant; so, my hunter instincts are necessarily balanced and muted. :-) ) However, as much as I may be a hunter over clothes, I am a serious gatherer of books and music. Places like Barnes & Noble and Borders love guys like me.

So, you might think that my struggle over books (i.e. physical or digital) is a struggle I have with music, too. Perhaps, but I think that my music-as-content evolution is a bit more “advanced” and, therefore, may be informative.

Although I still buy physical CDs more than digital downloads, all of my music is immediately rendered in digital format and almost entirely consumed digitally thereafter. Going “essentially digital” has enabled me to take full advantage of classification software (e.g. MusicBrainz, freedb, etc.), playback software (e.g. Apple iTunes, Microsoft Zune, etc.), recommendation engines like Pandora, etc. and also various playback hardware (e.g. an Apple iDevice, laptop, PC, etc.). If I read the liner notes for an album, I do so once (typically after unwrapping the CD). From then on, interaction with music is based on bits rather than atoms (the occasional CD play through my high fidelity entertainment system notwithstanding).

Perhaps with the advent of The Undesigned Web, software like Instapaper, and hardware like iPad, etc., my interaction with reading material will tip to become predominantly digital. Certainly, as I use the Read Later feature of Instapaper, I find it to be a digital equivalent to my paper-based content winnowing approach from years ago. (Tapping into familiar workstreams is always an effective catalyst to change my behavior.)

…if I did go digital my office would be too Spartan.

Actually, I think another contributing factor to my attempt at balancing the gathering of atoms with gathering bits instead is the fact that there is limited physical space to house either. Today, it’s not really a concern over becoming Spartan, it’s about using limited wall and desktop space to display physical items of the greatest value (e.g. family photos, art, sculpture, etc.).

Just like I’m able to visualize the “height” (or “depth”) of, say, my iPod (i.e. the number of digitized albums stored in terms of a stack of CD cases), I’m beginning to visualize my iPad in a similar manner (i.e. in terms of the stack of print magazines and books available electronically instead). Virtually speaking, such devices “fill a room.”

Who knows, I may just have to invest in my own book scanner to help free up some shelf space… :-)