My Life on Shiny, Spinning Disks

When Julie and I got back from our road trip from Oregon, we still had a few chapters left on The Golden Compass audiobook. At first, I figured we could finish it inside while we were unpacking, but when we took out the CD, I immediately recognized a problem. It’s 2017, and the only CD drive that we own is in the car stereo.

Although it left us on a cliffhanger, the backup plan was straightforward: I borrowed an external drive from work the following day and brought it home to finish listening over laundry. When the iTunes CD tracks screen appeared, however, I again realized how long it had been since I used it. Since I stream all of my music now, my collection of CDs are probably most useful as coasters.

We still managed to finish The Golden Compass

My gaming and computer-obsessed life started with floppy disks. My family owned tons of shareware MS-DOS games, each neatly compressed onto labeled floppy disks and filed away in the closet. I played classics like Commander Keen and Raptor far more than the developers had intended with the free demos. For readers younger than me, an oddly archaic-seeming part of 3.5-inch floppy disks was the “read-only” switch. There was a physical toggle in the corner in the disk that you would flip back and forth to lock the contents of the disk.

When i was in early elementary school, my dad explained how the fancy, automatic coffee mug holder (he called it a “CD drive”) on the computer worked. My sisters and I gathered around as he showed us how to insert the CD and start up the Fatty Bear’s Birthday Surprise game but also pointed out that we couldn’t listen to a music CD at the same time since we only had 1 drive.

No one will be surprised to hear that I grew up on video games, and since my family never owned any game consoles, I was basically raised by the CD drive. First came Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. A few years later, I got the 5-CD set to play Baldur’s Gate, which was the odd beginning to my more pro-social hobby of playing Dungeons & Dragons.

I didn’t use CD only for games. I got a music CD player from my grandpa when I was around 10, and it mostly sat on my bookshelf with a pair of speakers. However, I didn’t have the right power adapter because the speakers were very quiet. Instead of figuring out how to boost that, I just lay on the extreme corner of my bed and strained to listen to the Star Wars soundtrack for the thousandth time.

In junior high, my parents freed the family desktop from my virtual monopoly and got me my own, gaming Dell desktop computer. It came with a DVD drive, and we installed a second CD-RW drive so I could burn copies of my friends’ video games and play them myself. I also watched Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone countless times, but I mainly just played video games. I still have a massive video game collection in a closet in my parents’ house. I sometimes regret having not played more of it extensively, but in retrospect, that probably would have been even less healthy.

My college MacBook Pro came with a DVD-RW drive, but even by 2007, I wasn’t using it much. Instead of wasting my time playing computer games, I wasted my time playing Super Smash Brothers on N64. I did have a pouch with an assortment of DVDs, games, but mostly productivity software in it. I used it less and less over time, especially when the drive got flakey and rejected CDs. Pro-tip: it was from a dirty lens inside, which I fixed by sticking in a lint-free cloth wrapped around a credit card to clean the inside.

My 2012 Retina MacBook Pro didn’t come with a CD drive, so I bought an external USB Superdrive, but even then, it was a vestigial attachment. I bought a few physical copies of video games, but I usually downloaded those too because the games were patched anyways. I gave that drive to my mom when she got a new computer without a CD drive and needed one.

And now, the only CD drive I own is in my car, which until this roadmap, was used to hold the phone mount. Who needs a mix CD when you have a Spotify playlist and a Bluetooth car stereo?

And that’s my life with CDs. I consumed far more information via CDs and DVDs than I did via television or even the internet growing up. I don’t miss them: other than the cost and availability of cellular data, streaming internet is almost strictly better. Although vinyl (and perhaps even cassette tapes) are making a comeback, I don’t see why CDs should come back.

And yet, when I most recently went to my parents’ house and was cleaning out my closet, I hesitated in touching even one of my video game CDs. I did invest a lot into those games. They do have value if I ever decide to play those games again. But I probably won’t play them ever again. They aren’t physically interesting: each disk looks more or less the same. And yet, I still want to keep them more than the dozens of books from my closet that I donated. Maybe there is something special to them.

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