The Death of Ownership

By Deane Barker on June 30, 2007

The Internet has changed my desire to own things. I’ve been through a distinct progression in this regard in the 10+ years I’ve been online.

I remember first getting online at the computer lab at Augustana College and looking up stuff about James Bond. It was all very interesting, but I had to own it all, physically. So I printed like crazy. I remember printing hundreds and hundreds of sheets of paper of James Bond stuff, taking it home to my tiny apartment, and filing it.

I got over that pretty quickly when I had my own computer, but I still had to own stuff, even if it was virtual. MP3s were the next big thing — I collected them. I amassed a folder of about 900 (pirated) MP3s. I had a Palm back then, and whenever I was out somewhere and heard a song, I would jot the title down so I would remember to go get it from Napster so it would be mine.

A few years ago, when Rhapsody came out and Napster re-launched as a service, I remember hearing about all the music you could get to for $10 a month. But then someone mentioned that you only had it for as long as you had the service. I was horrified. You mean you didn’t own it? What was the point?

But, somewhere along the line, I got over this. I started enjoying Rhapsody and Napster and came to the conclusion that “having instant, unfettered access to” and “owning” were essentially the same thing. My $10 a month was a fee I paid someone else to store, manage, and take responsibility for my stuff.

And now I’ve come even further —

I was watching Scrubs the other night (great, great show), and I got to thinking that I’d like to see all the episodes. So, I thought, I’ll go down to Best Buy and pick up the DVDs. Then I decided not to, because what am I going to do with those disks and stuff? I’d probably lose them, or they’d get scratched (I have three kids, remember), and I’d have to store them somewhere, and keep track of them, and…what a pain.

But what if I could pay a fee to just have access to those Scrubs episodes? Now that would be something. Someone else would handle them and make sure they worked and stayed safe. I could just log on and watch them without any regard to anything physical floating around my house or any file floating around my hard drive that I had to deal with. When the episode was done, I just close the window and walk away. Now that’s what I want.

And there you have it — I’ve gone from wanting to own everything to wanting to own nothing and actually being stressed out by the thought of ownership. Weird how that works.

(I realize too that this probably makes one side of the intellectual property debate happy, the other side indignant. I’m sorry for this because I believe in the side of truth, justice, and Cory Doctorow. Sorry man, this is just how I feel about it.)

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  1. Just out of curiosity, do you feel this way about your house? Your car? Your clothes? Your underwear? Or just digital representations of intellectual property?

    I understand that you’re not making any really controversial statement here relative to the question of whether or not someone can own intellectual property (which is really a misnomer, because only the copyright or patent holder can actually own intellectual property), but I’m just curious as to why you don’t mention material property, even in passing…

  2. It’s a good point. I guess I’ll amend my point to say this —

    I don’t want to own stuff that’s ephemeral. The first season of Scrubs is such a thing. I want it now, but I probably won’t next year, and, in either case, I certainly don’t need it for anything.

    My house, I need.

  3. I was thinking about this a little further, and I’ll narrow it down better. Two rules:

    1. Anything that can be virtual, I want to be virtual. The first season of Scrubs is worth much more to me if I don’t have to have the physical DVDs to watch it.

    2. Anything virtual is best managed by someone else. I regularly move among two or three machines, hard drives fail, and stuff gets deleted. If someone else can manage it, that’s a much better plan.

  4. But what if I could pay a fee to just have access to those Scrubs episodes? Now that would be something.

    I know you’re trying to make a larger point, but get Netflix or Blockbuster Total Access. Then your “need” for DVDs really will be fulfilled. Especially with BB Total Access if you have a store nearby. Put Scrubs in your Queue, get them in the mail, watch them (or rip for temporary storage before you watch them), trade the envelopes in at the store for some new DVDs, then more Scrubs will show up in a couple days.

  5. Interesting that you mention this, because this has been something I’ve wanted for a while now. I thought I’d like to watch a film that was mentioned on a Canadian cultural arts show. When we had DVD stores, it wouldn’t have been available there – too obscure. It wouldn’t be available from NetFlix (especially Canadian NetFlix, which my son tells is me is Very Lame) – not a money-maker for them, or not licensed for viewing in Canada. I even try the single Canadian art house movie place that still sends out DVDs by mail. Nada. So I find a copy on eBay or Amazon. I know where I can get non-mainstream books online, but what about non-mainstream movies?

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