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The Real Cost of the Digital Age

© Heinrich Böll Stiftung, https://www.flickr.com/photos/44112235@N04

The price of having everything for free for a short period of time is that soon you are left with nothing, no matter how much you later become willing to pay. A fine warning to everyone for when the Zombie apocalypse does indeed come and the survivors scramble to relieve ASDA of its stock. True enough as well for the demise of one of the oldest and most revered video games magazines in the world, ‘Computer and Video Games’, or CVG, which after 33 years will soon cease to exist, only months after the Official Nintendo Magazine bit the similarly inglorious dust. 

I’ll save my own personal thoughts and experiences with these and other publications for another day. More immediately relevant, I feel, is what the closure of two once industry leading publications says about the manner in which the modern public interacts with all forms of media and art in the digital age. Much has has already been written about the way in which instant and often free access to entertainment online devalues the content itself, as the ever dwindling music industry figures and tight-fisted bastardry of Spotify attests to. Less taken into consideration is the way in which having to pay to exist in the digital age has pick-pocketed money which might have once gone into such industries.

It’s an over-simplification to say that www.cvg.co.uk will soon be no more because it can be read for free. Of course, it isn’t free – you need to pay for a laptop or tablet and a steady internet connection to do it any kind of justice, things people didn’t use their money on fifteen years ago. There’s something of a falsehood about the fact that people were better off say, ten or fifteen years ago when it came to disposable income, in the midst of the grand national orgy of bank de-regulation and easy credit that came before Labour spent all of the current and next generation’s money and the markets crashed. Individuals and families weren’t tied to monthly bills for phone contracts or broadband; having more than one computer per family was an extravagance; the sizes of televisions didn’t change year on year to the extent that it was really worth buying a new one more than every fifteen years.

The disposable income that would once be spent on CDs, on books, on magazines, on newspapers, on trips to cinemas, on all those things which can now be streamed to a computer, should you really desire it, for free, became otherwise indisposed, independently vacating via direct debit to EE, or Sky on a monthly basis. Coupled with the draconian increases in the cost of housing, of heating, of filling up a car with petrol, of student loan repayments, of increased council tax of the price, of a pint in a pub regularly exceeding £4 out of the snug confines of the North, and the money which people once used to actually have fun and buy things which enriched their lives is running drier than ever.

So how have people, young people especially, responded to modern society’s demand of us that we pay hundreds of pounds per year annually so as not to descend into a life of smartphone-less disconnected hermitage? Simply, to take advantage of the freeness which the internet has created, legally in the case of online newspapers and magazines, of music videos on Youtube, and illegally in the case of streaming Game of Thrones or illegally downloading an album. Almost certainly, as great a proportion of people in the 1980s or 1990s would have done this if afforded the opportunity, human nature hasn’t changed so ineffably since then, and the elderlies who decry our lack of respect for physical media ought to put themselves in our shoes and contemplate an adolescence in which the prevailing view of your contemporaries is that £4 is too much to pay for a 150 page music magazine but reasonable for a trip to Starbucks or entry into a nightclub whose floors wouldn’t hold up to much scrutiny under a UV light.

If you raise a generation on a diet of consumerism in the hope of creating a wealth of future customers and then give them the means to access content for free, don’t be so surprised when after the initial locust swarm there’s little left but an empty field of internet service providers offering you access to nothing at all worth reading, and only social media providing any kind of content. Whatever’s been slipped into the water supply to create what is now known as a hipster in the hope of producing a new breed of vinyl buying, mochaccino sipping neo-luddites with iPhones in their pockets may well be too little too late. In an ideal world there’s room for having both a tablet and a physical newspaper in your bag; if people don’t value the latter more, there’s soon going to be far less point paying for the former.