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I moved last summer, and there's one removal box that I haven't unpacked yet. It's the one with the audio CDs I've collected along the years. I've also decided I'm not going to buy CDs anymore except in very exceptional cases. While there are many IP-ideological reasons to not do so, and the practical reason of avoiding CD-like counterfeit products that the major labels spew out, I have another very practical reason.

This is the fact that the physical media is absolutely useless to me. All my music (which amounts to much more than those CDs) is on the computer, and the older stuff much more compactly as MP3s on a few CD- and DVD-ROMs. It is simply much more convenient to play the music from the computer (with a decent sound card connected to the home stereos), as any computer-literate person should agree. I don't even need the CDs for ripping, because I want to sample my music before buying, and the P2P networks are the most convenient service in existence for that. This conduct may leave the artists without their handouts, and the middle-men empty-handed (some rightfully), but this is irrelevant to the theme of this article.

If I bought all the music I listen to on CDs and kept the disks, my flat would be filled with worthless pieces of plastic that I have no need for. DVDs are even worse then CDs in this respect. Most of their content isn't worth watching more than once, and even that which is, is used far less frequently than music. Personally, I have ever bought only one DVD, and that was as a sign of support for a very good (for an) amateur scifi parody, and just because it is also in free (as in beer) circulation under a Creative Commons license. It's simply pointless to buy the physical media for something that you most likely only watch once, and that you get (sometimes more conveniently) on the Internet.

Furthermore, producing and shipping such slabs of plastic around the world can not be without an environmental impact. Intuitively, the energy needed to transfer an album or a movie on the internet is far less than that needed for the production of the physical media and casing, and their shipment to retail outlet. The internet servers and routers can also run on more environmentally friendly forms of energy (such as nuclear power) than the lorries and planes and most ships that burn fossil fuel. Besides the energy used, there may also be – and I'd be surprised if there weren't – other environmental costs in the production and molding of all the plastic. I have no hard numbers, of course, and it would be interesting to see a proper study of these effects.

Of course, the downloaded information doesn't exist in vacuum, and needs hardware to be stored on. However, as already mentioned, most movies can be deleted after having been watched once. Hence the storage requirements are minimal in that case. Music can also be stored much more compactly (even as high-quality) MP3 or OGG files on both hard drives and CD-ROM or DVD-ROM media, than the original CDs. If the download services were more reliable than what P2P currently will be able to offer given the threat of legal attacks and so on, it wouldn't even be necessary for everyone to collect libraries of music. When one runs out of disk space, one could simply delete the music one hasn't been listening to in a while, and re-download it (without extra cost) when it seems interesting again. Books and other textual information compresses even better, of course. There, however, digital media is most of the time quite impractical due to the inferiority of display hardware to paper.

Given the what seems a highly likely case that the above intuition is correct, one can observe that free and free'd information have the tendency to be greener than most captive information. On the easily justifiable premise that information wants to be free, can one conclude that information also wants to be green? One certainly wishes so, and in a post-copyright world, all public information would naturally be available from easy and unencumbered online download services, and this should encourage locally storing the information on reusable media, and only that information that is frequently needed. But the (hopefully inevitable) social transformation to post-copyright world alone does not yet imply that such download services would be more popular than buying information on physical media at the cost of that media and service (and possibly a small donation depending on the exact nature of our post-copyright society), or that people wouldn't fancy storing everything they download on individual physical media, for display. It doesn't help to predict the situation that there simply is no data available, as the industry in general seems to be against such convenient, extensive and unencumbered services. If they provide green information, they provide it in a cage. Now, how nice is a caged tree to look at? There are exceptions, of course, and one can only hope that they become rather the rule. While it might not be possible to predict the demise of individual physical media for works such as albums and movies, at the very least, however, technological advances should ensure that physical media becomes smaller and reusable.

If nothing else can be concluded from all this chatter, at least I have a partial answer to the question "What Colour are your bits?" I think they're pale green. It'd be nice if they were a little brighter, and I'd like them to sport red and black as well, but there's enough to be said about those two colours to fill entire books, and maybe another article on this site, so nothing further will be said here.