A 🎩tip to my friend Howard for finding this article for me: Americans own less stuff because of the internet, and that’s a worry. Alas, it is paywalled, so I’ll excerpt some of its concerns, which focus on “the erosion of personal ownership and what that will mean for our loyalties to traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.”:
The main culprits for the change are software and the internet. For instance, Amazon’s Kindle and other methods of online reading have revolutionised how Americans consume text. Fifteen years ago, people typically owned the books and magazines they were reading. Much less so now. If you look at the fine print, it turns out that you do not own the books on your Kindle. Amazon.com does. […] We used to buy DVDs or video cassettes; now viewers stream movies or TV shows with Netflix. Even the company’s disc-mailing service is falling out of favour. Music lovers used to buy compact discs; now Spotify and YouTube are more commonly used to hear our favourite tunes. The great American teenage dream used to be to own your own car. That is dwindling in favour of urban living, greater reliance on mass transit, cycling, walking and, of course, ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.
This is true even with devices you purportedly “own”, like your cell phone or computer, it notes:
What about your iPhone, that all-essential life device? Surely you own that? Well, sort of. When Apple decides to change the operating software, sooner or later you have to go along with what they have selected. Gmail is due to change its overall look and functionality, maybe for the better, but again eventually this choice will not be yours either: It’s Google’s. The very economics of software encourage standardisation, and changes over time, so de facto you rent much of what you use rather than owning it. I typed the draft of this column using Microsoft Word, and sooner or later my contract to use it will expire and I will have to renew. […] As for that iPhone, it is already clear that you do not have a full legal right to repair it, and indeed more and more devices are sold to consumers without giving them corresponding rights to fix or alter those goods and services. John Deere tractors are sold to farmers with plenty of software, and farmers have to hack into the tractor if they wish to fix it themselves. There is now a small but burgeoning “right to repair” political movement.
I’ve had some similar concerns. Usually, it hits me with respect to music. After all, I own an iPod Classic with lots of music (approaching 45,000 songs). Some of these are recorded from LPs, some are from CDs, and some are digitally source. I take care to use a source that gets me the files without their controlling them, but I’m still being held hostage to the format of the files (MP3, M4A) and having a device that can translate them, and having a player that can play them — which Apple could invalidate quite easily. The only sure things are my LPs and CDs (if the latter don’t rot away).
We’re seeing an increased emphasis from the younger generation (hey, you, get off of my lawn) on downsizing and getting rid of stuff. Whereas we amassed large collections of books, they are being digitized — and that puts them in the hostage category to digital formats and readers. Paper wasn’t subject to that.
We’re being pushed away from personal vehicle ownership. Companies want us to lease our cars and replace them. Kids in urban areas even eschew cars, going for shared rides.
Housing is similar. High housing prices push people to lease instead of buy; this is the norm in New York where people are long term renters of apartments. Services like AirBNB take that to a new level. You’ve never owned your home on the Internet: Domain names have annual fees and are essentially leased — there is no perpetual domain names.
Now ask yourself: What does this do to the American notion of private property and its ownership? Are we moving to a model of shared services and shared ownership? The economic divide seems to be pushing things that way, with the top economic individuals and companies owning more and more, and we’re just leasing it from them. After all, for the person selling something, private ownership is horrible. You sell it once, get your price, and make no more income from it. But if you lease it or license it, you have a continuing income stream.
I’ve seen this in moving my wife’s computer to Windows 10. Whereas before I would buy the software, now I’m subscribing and getting the annual fees.
So what are your thoughts? Should we be worried about the erosion of private ownership and the move to subscription, streaming, licensing, and leases?