Our love affair with the digital download lasted for less than a decade. Devices such as the iPod and Kindle helped to persuade us that paying to own a few megabytes of data, rather than the book or CD equivalent, was a blessing.
With our new-found ability to carry thousands of novels or albums around in our bag or pocket, the fact that we couldn’t hold those artefacts in our hands became a minor inconvenience. But the assumption that downloads would continue to ride high as the pre-eminent form of cultural consumption turned out to be wrong.
The music and book download markets peaked in about 2012 and 2014 respectively, and since then the sales reports have been consistent: the popularity of e-books is waning, while hardback and paperback sales continue to hold up. The same is said of music, with reports last week from the USA confirming that physical media is now outselling downloads once again. Indeed, the RIAA, the US recording industry's trade association, referred to vinyl albums as "a bright spot among physical formats", with sales up 10 per cent. But does this really indicate a rediscovered fondness for the physical object? Or has our consumption of media become so complex that it's almost immune to analysis?
The recent, and improbable, resurgence of the popularity of vinyl is frequently held up as a sign that we like our music purchases to be tangible, even fragile. UK retailers such as Tesco and HMV have helped vinyl sales reach levels not seen since the early 1990s. Indeed, last year the British supermarket Sainsbury's launched its own vinyl record label to capitalise on that enthusiasm. Surprisingly, however, this cultural shift is not entirely driven by audiophiles who claim that the format offers superior sound quality, or older people who wish to return to a more considered way of listening to music.
"Young people like to own a physical product as it makes them feel closer to the artist," said Patrizia Leighton, HMV's head of marketing last year, adding that the trend was particularly prevalent among young women. A study by eBay late last year labelled this renewed interest among young people in the idea of ownership of tangible cultural objects as "Generation Phygital".
The psychology of ownership is something that has long fascinated academics. A 1981 book, The Meaning Of Things, makes a case for how the objects we own "reflect and help create the ultimate goals of one's existence", and how they effectively become an extension of ourselves. As the digitisation of culture has taken a number of those objects out of our hands, it would follow that our relationship with them would also change.
Author and psychologist Christian Jarrett suggests that this may be a reason why digital piracy of music once ran so rampant. “Because people generally place a lower value on digital products,” he wrote last year, “it follows that many of us consider the theft of digital products as less serious than physical theft.”
Because of strict copy protection systems, books never suffered from digital piracy as much as music has, and there is powerful evidence that we still hold the printed book in high regard – almost a pride in the bookshelves that contain physical manifestations of the knowledge we have accumulated and stories we have read, and say something about who we are.
But again, this is not entirely driven by nostalgia. Statistics show that young people also share the same feeling. An online survey conducted in 2013 – a peak period for e-books – found that 62 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds preferred print to digital. At last year's London Book Fair, the director of Nielsen Book Research, Steve Bohme, put this down to a kind of screen fatigue.
“We are seeing that books are a respite, particularly for young people who are so busy digitally,” he said.
However, headline figures don't tell the whole story. Many of the recent reports of the slump in digital music downloads in the USA failed to point out that streaming now accounts for nearly two thirds of music industry revenue in that country. The rude health of that industry, in its best shape since 2008, is almost entirely down to an uptake in music subscription services such as Spotify, Google Play Music and Apple Music.
Rather than valuing physical objects over ownership of folders of MP3s, we may actually be rejecting the notion of ownership altogether in favour of total convenience – enormous libraries of music instantly accessible from anywhere in the world with a data connection. And if that access stops and our playlists disappear as soon as we stop paying the monthly premium, well, so be it.
The picture is similar in the world of books. Figures for e-book sales tend not to include data for Kindle Unlimited, where more than a million titles are available to read for a monthly subscription fee, or e-books that do not have ISBN numbers.
The latter ignores self-published titles that operate outside of the traditional world of publishing and for which no accurate measure of sales is available. One 2015 estimate puts the self-published e-book market as high as 31 per cent of e-book sales but Amazon, the custodian of that data, has not yet shared accurate figures.
While the renewed interest in traditional forms of media at the expense of digital may be exaggerated, our changing consumption patterns are evidently causing us to find new ways of showing fondness for things we no longer put on our shelves – books, music, video and even photographs. It has been suggested that the meaning we have lost through non-ownership is the thing we seek to rediscover when we share tracks or recommendations on social media, with public displays of allegiance replacing pride in our personal collections.
As Jarrett puts it: “Where once we expressed our identity through fashion preferences and props, today we can cultivate an online identity … In short, our relationship with our things, possessions and brands remains as important as ever, it’s just the nature of the relationship is changing.”