The Technium

Better Than Owning

[Translations: Japanese]

Ownership is not as important as it once was.

I use roads that I don’t own. I have immediate access to 99% of the roads and highways of the world (with a few exceptions) because they are a public commons. We are all granted this street access via our payment of local taxes. For almost any purpose I can think of, the roads of the world serve me as if I owned them. Even better than if I owned them since I am not in charge of maintaining them. The bulk of public infrastructure offers the same “better than owning” benefits.

The web is also a social common good. The web is not the same as public roads, which are “owned” by the public, but in terms of public access and use, the web is a type of community good. The good of the web serves me as if I owned it. I can summon it in full, anytime, with the snap of a finger. Libraries share some of these qualities. The content of the books are not public domain, but their displays (the books) grant public access to their knowledge and information, which is in some ways better than owning them.

Very likely, in the near future, I won’t “own” any music, or books, or movies. Instead I will have immediate access to all music, all books, all movies using an always-on service, via a subscription fee or tax. I won’t buy – as in make a decision to own — any individual music or books because I can simply request to see or hear them on demand from the stream of ALL. I may pay for them in bulk but I won’t own them. The request to enjoy a work is thus separated from the more complicated choice of whether I want to “own” it. I can consume a movie, music or book without having to decide or follow up on ownership.

For many people this type of instant universal access is better than owning. No responsibility of care, backing up, sorting, cataloging, cleaning, or storage.  As they gain in public accessibility, books, music and movies are headed to become social goods even though they might not be paid by taxes. It’s not hard to imagine most other intangible goods becoming social goods as well. Games, education, and health info are also headed in that direction.

As creations become digital they tend to become shared, ownerless goods. We can turn this around and say that in this realm of bits, property itself becomes a more social endeavor. Property may be less about title and more about usage and control. An idea can’t be owned in the way gold can; in fact an idea has little value unless it is shared or used to some extent. Its value paradoxically can increase the less it is owned privately. But if no one owns it, who gains the benefit of that increase in value? In the new regime users will often assume many of the chores that owners once had to do. And so in a way, usage becomes ownership.

According to the principle of dematerialization, all goods are having their atoms infused with bits, decreasing their weight per performance, so that all material goods increasingly behave as if they were intangible services. This means that lumber, steel, chemicals, food, cars, plane flights – everything made – can also be governed by the principles of intangible goods (see the New Rules of the New Economy). As goods become disembodied, infused with slivers of mind, and packed full of bits, they will also obey the new dynamics of property. Soon enough everything manufactured will potentially become social property.

As cars become more “electronic” or digital, they will tend to be swapped and shared and used in a social way. The more we embed intelligence and smarts into clothing the more we’ll treat these articles as common property. We’ll share aspects of them (perhaps what they are made of, where they are, what climate they see), which means that we’ll think of ourselves as sharing them.

Our sense of ownership is a funny thing. If you purchase an ebook and download the book’s PDF file to your computer, you’d say you owned it, and expect the rights of ownership. However if you went to a link where a PDF of a book was opened on your screen for free and automatically, you might not feel you owned this book, even if it was copied to your disk. Possession of a copy turns out to be less important in the feeling of ownership than does the price. Free things don’t generate strong feelings of ownership. Gifts do, which we think of as “free,” but our sense of ownership is related to their “replacement costs” – how much they would cost us to buy elsewhere, their market value. If an item has a marketplace cost of zero, we tend not to feel we own it. So as more economic activity gravitates toward the free, less will feel owned. As more is shared, less will act like property.

Sharing is not very different from renting. We could say that the sharing economy currently emerging from social media is really a renting economy. But we don’t use the word “rent” logically. When we watch a movie on a pay-TV channel we are actually renting it, although we don’t use that word. Yet in fact we use a movie (movies are used by watching them) without owning it; instead we pay for the right to borrow it. That is rent. It doesn’t feel like rent because there is no visible unit to swap. If we view a Netflix movie it feels more like renting because a little plastic disk is mailed to us. But if Netflix were to suddenly switch to digital download of the movie (as they are doing) we will still be renting the movie without the disk.  The main reason we don’t ordinarily use the metaphor of “rent” with digital goods is because we associate renting with things, rather than services. We rent a tuxedo, but we don’t rent internet service. But when we rent, we are sharing the cost of ownership across a group. The legal ownership may reside with the company renting, but the effective ownership – the ownership of use – is held by the group borrowing the good or service.

In a rent relationship the renter enjoys many of the benefits of ownership, but without the need for capital, or upkeep. Of course renters are disadvantaged as well because they may not gain all the benefits of traditional ownership, such as rights of modification, long-term access, or gains in value. The invention of renting was not far behind the invention of property, and today you can rent almost anything. Women’s handbags are a $9 billion retail industry in the US. Top of the line bags with famous brands sell for $500 or more. Since bags are often matched to outfits, or seasonal fads, a selection of fancy bags can get expensive real quick. In response to the high prices of bags a sizeable bag rental business has emerged. In large cities one can rent bags from a tony rental storefront. Or anyone can head to a half dozen handy online bag rental websites, and rent a near-new copy of a high-priced bag for their own use. Rentals run $30-60 per week, depending on the bag’s demand. Renting thrives because for many uses it is better than owning. Bags can be swapped to match outfits, returned so one does not need to store them. For short-term uses sharing ownership makes sense. And for many of the things we use in the upcoming world, short term use is the norm.

As more items are invented and manufactured – while the total number of hours in a day to enjoy them remains fixed – we spend less and less time per item. In other words the long-term trend in our modern lives is that ALL goods and services will be short-term use. Therefore all goods and services are candidates for rental, sharing, and the social commons.

Once you have a trendy bag, you might need some trendy shoes, jewelry, scarves – all of which can also be rented. And its not just women’s fashion today. There is a growing market for luxury good rentals of all kinds. Expensive men’s watches, yachts, fine china, and artwork can all be owned temporarily from a company today. Less expensive stuff has a much longer history of rentals. Furniture, baby cribs, folding chairs and tables, construction tools, party tents, tools for do-it-yourself, and health care equipment can be borrowed from some 12,000 rental companies in the US alone.


What kind of stuff people rent-to-own

Leasing, licensing, subscribing are all types of shared ownership. (In general we rent for short-term and lease for longer; we’ll rent a car for a week, or lease it for 2 years.) There are other variations in the sharing economy, such as rent-to-own, where regular payments go towards the purchase of the good when the purchase price is reached. Low-income families without good credit will often rent-to-own (at predatory lending rates) furniture and appliances they can’t afford to purchase. Technically a mortgage is a type of rent-to-own agreement in which ownership transfers to the “renter” at the start of regular payments, but since the mortgagee enjoys the rights of ownership it doesn’t follow the patterns of rent.

The latest twist in shared ownership for tangible physical goods is called fractional ownership. It is like time-sharing, but with full ownership privileges and responsibilities. Popular fractional ownership arrangements grant the co-owner a certain number of hours flying in a private jet to the destination of their choice, or driving a super car for 5,000 miles per year, or spending a limited number of days at a resort villa. With fractional ownership you can also share owning a sports team, a racehorse, or a vineyard. A website built to promote fractional ownership of primarily luxury goods puts it this way: “Fractional ownership and asset-sharing gives you an ideal way to get the most out of your investment by purchasing only the shares or time you require from an asset. All other aspects are split, both the benefits and the costs, amongst a limited number of shareholders or members.”

The downside to the traditional rental business is the “rival” nature of physical goods. Rival means that there is a zero-sum game; only one rival prevails. If I am renting your boat, no one else can. If I rent a bag to you, I cannot rent the same bag to another. To scale your rental business you have to buy more boats or bags. But of course, intangible goods and services don’t work this way. They are “non-rival” which means you can rent the same movie to as many people who want to rent it this hour. Sharing intangibles scales magnificently. This ability to share on a large scale without diminishing the satisfaction of the individual renter is transformative. The total cost of use drops precipitously (shared by millions instead of one). Suddenly, ownership is not so important.  Why own, when you get the same utility from renting, leasing, licensing, sharing?

But more importantly why even possess it? Why take charge of it at all if you have instant, constant, durable, full access to it? If you lived inside of the world’s largest rental store, why would you own anything? If you can borrow anything you needed without possessing it, you gain the same benefits with fewer disadvantages. If this was a magic rental store, where most of the gear was stored “downstairs” in a virtual basement, then whenever you summoned an item or service it would appear at your command.

The internet is this magic rental store. Its virtual basement is infinite, and it provides omni-access to its holdings. There are fewer and fewer reasons to own, or even possess anything. Via omni-access the most ordinary citizen can get hold of a good or service as fast as possessing it. The quality of the good is equal to what you can own, and in some cases getting hold of it may be faster than finding it on your own in your own “basement.”

Access is so superior to ownership, or possession, that it will drive the emerging intangible economy. The chief holdup to full-scale conversion from ownership to omni-access is the issue of modification and control. In traditional property regimes only owners have the right to modify or control the use of the property. The right of modification is not transferred in rental, leasing, or licensing agreements. But they are transferred in open source content and tools, which is part of their great attraction in this new realm. The ability and right to improve, personalize, or appropriate what is shared will be a key ingredient in the advance of omni-access. But as the ability to modify is squeezed from classic ownership models (think of those silly shrink-wrap warranties), ownership is degraded.

The trend is clear: access trumps possession. Access is better than ownership.

  • Jun

    The internet, in theory is the infinite bottomless pit of digital content. In practice, there will be qualitative differences in the types of rental services out there. Some may offer a better collection of movies, books, etc. in a particular genre or interest area… others may specialize in image / audio quality, and there will surely be other inventive ways of bundling and packaging offerings to meet different needs.

    As long as there are qualitative differences, and enough providers, we end up in the situation that drives people to prefer ownership over rental – that is, control and the reduction of complexity. People own to recreate finite limits – to reduce the number of possibilities and settle with a smaller, more coherent set of choices.

  • @NZN

    Keep in mind, you will need to “own” your “access” at some point, less you be denied the service you expect because you “own” nothing.

    Actually, ownership is the umbrella concept.

    Owners are accountable; a beneficial human trait.
    Ownership preserves value, even extends it. Renters or those with access utilize value.

    The issue is not which is better, the issue is which one leads to the other?

    Can you access ownership?
    Can you own access?

    Which is better?

    Own your life. Lets make sure our IDENTITIES and all of the data they correlate to are owned privately by each and every one of us. Then let us collaborate on the social marketplace as owners all. This is the only way to ensure private access, open freedom, and a government of the people, for the people, by the people… because it is owned by its citizens.

    Dont you wish you owned democracy in America when it seems like it is being taken from you. Isnt it great when you have access to the change social decision making enables. Aren’t you tired of being treated like a renter with all the access in the world, but none of the benefits of ownership?

    A nation that owns itself will be accountable for its obligations. How is America doing in this regard? How connected are you to the debt that has your freedom on the line?

    Ill take ownership of access every time.

  • AjmoT

    There’s a next step to this, which I’m sure you’ve talked about elsewhere but didn’t get to here. You say “if you can borrow anything you needed without possessing it, you gain the same benefits with fewer disadvantages.” And you end the piece by naming the culprit: “The chief holdup to full-scale conversion from ownership to omni-access is the issue of modification and control.” Right: the portable petabytes, 24/7 bandwidth, etc will come… but control is the intractable problem.

    And here’s the kernel to the next step. You’ve noted before that “people want to pay”, they don’t necessarily want free stuff. So your use of the term “open-source” is pregnant with meaning in this context: software on the precipice of this new economy is not just Free, it is Open — for anyone to modify, and to control.

    But why is this significant? Something which is free (freely got by whatever means) is not necessarily easy to co-opt, to control, or redistribute, or — to resell. It’s tainted goods. Its deeply unethical to extract monetary value from a free thing — even more true of stolen goods. We feel this way about software, music, and genetic code. And money tends to happen whenever we share in the analog world, even with the best of intentions. But an open thing — here’s a thing that is unfulfilled, and it needs you to join in and bring it to a new level of reality and beauty. “Open-source” means ready for your creative input, ready for you to add value and meaning to it and the world around you.

    This is all a bit heady. I am in the business of climbing out of poverty: I help people grow their own food, build their own houses and furniture, make their own power and machines and income, educate themselves and heal themselves. Until we hit a singularity, these non-digital needs will still be in short supply wherever we’ve got ignorance, laziness, blind dependence, parasitism — and bills to pay.

    But as we get beyond the need to eat and shelter ourselves and keep money and illness at bay, then we can enter the world of open-source more and more (and really these are probably tandem processes). In the analog realm, the beauty and value of a thing is physically monopolized via a non-reproducible item, and that item cannot be used by many people simultaneously (oh space-time!). We have passed through a 20th century of increasingly mass-produced items, to the point where we broke through the cell-membrane of solidity and entered the digital realm. Here the rules are inverted, so that a single thing can be used by many people simultaneously, and in fact at its highest level of sophistication these single things are most alive when the greatest number of people invest their full creative powers into the open-source vessel: when the most people are engaged in a concerted effort to use and improve the tools and artifacts in this cooperative realm.

    And perhaps, historically, what really happened was the drive to possess became too unbearably strong, and so much machinery and money was directed toward creating mass-produced things for individual mass-possession, that the locus of possession underwent a reversal, under the pressure of the extreme absurdity of the historical moment, and a new realm was born, in which possession could not logically take place alone, disconnected from and in opposition to others. Meaningful possession on the internet can only occur when connected (oh what awful pain when that umbilical signal eludes us!), and once connected, possession is not about flaunting and posture but sharing, and improving, and engaging, and creating.

    You’re only cool online if you make something special and awesome that everyone can be a part of. Many things in the manufactured world are increasingly built so that the average person cannot possibly modify them in any meaningful way, to increase their value or functionality — and become trash when they malfunction even slightly. But on the open net, we need your creativity, and everyone can join in to build, repair, invent — or just comment. (And we can use this new foundation for going back to repair the analog world that we left in distress.)

  • Amy Scanlon

    There is nothing new about the idea of rental and even public rental replacing ownership.

    In the Science Fiction novel “Woman on the Edge of Time” a lot of things such as jewelry, fancy dress, sporting goods, and such were borrowed from “the library”.

  • Steve

    “Worth conjuring whether there could be a workable opensource, creative commons, wiki-ish magic rental store.”

    Yes, let’s configure the cart! Then we can figure out how the horse can push it.

  • Teed Rockwell

    You can’t rent food

    • Ferry Helmich

      True, but all-you-can-eat is rather a service than a product in my opinion.

  • stephanie gerson

    I agree that our definition/use of the ownership model is becoming outdated, but…

    “The trend is clear: access trumps possession. Access is better than ownership.”

    hmph. this might feel like the case right now, while there’s an explosion of non-ownership models. but I’d argue that ownership is one in a diversifying portfolio of models, and will ultimately find a function. at that point, the question will not be: which is better, access or ownership? but instead: under which circumstances to leverage access, ownership, or otherwise?

  • John Kowalsky

    I think a better concept than renting, is sharing… thus doing away with the need for money, which the majority of people will never have control of.

    In a renting society we are still enslaved to banks and jobs, but in a sharing society, we could be truly free.

    What do you think?

  • kinserino

    When times life is making a drama on people. Like we has to live with or even to come on bed with person we never would love. Time is making a fool at us. Yesterday I saw this wonderful movie called Possession (2009) it is the perfect story for some one he thinks deep In life. I feel very sorry about the lady. Because she is suffered from loosing her husband and also in the matter of time having to live with his brother who dislikes her much early. Saw it on I think many wife stunt to see this movie.

  • Chris Grayson

    @ KK: You replied:
    > @ Mrsclean: You write:
    > If the argument is that everything that is a commodity
    > should be also available to rent, great. If the argument
    > is that renting should replace ownership… yikes.
    > I am arguing the former: that rental is a better option,
    > but should not replace the option of ownership. Sorry I
    > did not make that clearer. In general I am pro-choice
    > in technology.

    Thank you for clarifying your position on this. I hope you will elaborate more on this distinction as this chapter evolves. As it is, to my ears (and obviously to many others based on the number of Marx quotes), what you wrote above was sounding alarmingly close to Marxism.

    Also, I seriously question the idea for several reasons.

    For one, music rental has flopped spectacularly. People wish to own things that they intend to experience again, even if not often. I may listen to digital radio, but when a song comes on I like/wish to hear again I buy it. I have zero interest in renting the option for future access to it. Movies are more prone to rental, hence we rent them (DVDs) or rent the experience (movie theater tickets) because they are most often an ‘enjoy it once’ type of experience. The consumption of the media isn’t the same.

    Secondly, access granted can always become access denied.

    But one of the biggest reasons I think digital property will remain largely ownership based is the declining cost of digital storage space. I save loads of media of all kinds. Why not? Storage cost is so minimal it is practically free. I have a couple of terabytes of storage space at home, and the price of storage is dropping by the minute, and getting physically smaller all the while. When it cost little to buy, even less to keep, and takes up almost no space, why not own a copy of everything I enjoy?


    After reading “Better Than Owning” and many of the posts, I finally decided to get into the blogging scene, having vowed never to do such! As designers (hi-end residential) we always embrace “less is more” however it also got me to thinking how to design appropriate transient residential spaces for what will be the mobile global participants of the 21st century; not just seedy motel type apartments but “iPod-design” uplifting spaces full of customizable tech interfaces. I link to “better then owning” in my first blog, which along with the posts have provoked a lot of GREAT thought and discussion. Thank you. @CASUDI

  • Stephen Downes

    The problem with renting is that if you stop paying you lose access. And there is never an end to the payments; you’re never free and clear. You can never protect yourself against rent increases, the imposition of unreasonable rules, or arbitrary blockage of access. Ownership protects against all of these. No system of rental will be sufficient until it addresses these problems – until, in other words, it becomes a system that actually does provide, and guarantee, access.

    • @Stephen Downes: I agree with you that durable, guaranteed access is a hurdle right now. That was one of the big negatives in DRM, and why it was doomed to fail. It is hard to get anyone in business to promise “forever”. Also we should factor in the fact that digital media platforms have a life span of about 5 years. (see my Movage post). So forever is almost meaningless in media. Maybe because of this churn, consumers are wising up and will demand portability of their playlists, handles, reputations, recommendations, etc. Companies will resist this of course. But I do agree it is a problem.

  • shane

    google road socialism lew rockwell. or go to lewrockwelldotcom find his Podcast archive,
    and find [ctrl f] road sosialism.
    also gander through all his podcast..

  • Jim Tobias

    I’m not sure this is as unidirectional as you suggest. Surely there are instances, like patented seeds, in which what used to be shared is now owned. Who could have imagined bottled water a generation ago? Perhaps there’s an Enclosure Act for every expanding Commons. The prices of unique items such as paintings and limited supply items like Manhattan real estate keep going up.

    It’s not that I disagree with your main point so much as want to see it in an economic and political framework. Maybe nothing really “gravitates towards the free”, but the ball keeps on bouncing. Owners will keep trying to assert their property rights, and seek to strengthen those rights if they can. Look at how video and audio content owners, having failed to monopolize transactions on the “desktop web”, now want to use wireless carrier networks as a more controlled distribution channel. If I were a car dealer seeking to limit zipcar uptake, I’d influence my manufacturer to offer more customization options — itself an outgrowth of the digital-driven feasibility of mass customization — as a way of reinforcing the value of ownership.

    • @Jim Tobias: Yes, I do think the counter force to “better than owning” is “better than free” — which are the “generatives” I see that entice customers to pay for things that are free. Both dynamics are at work. I think there is a bias in technology so that it wants stuff to be free, but ingenuity and tech advances produce new ways for sellers to sell things that cannot be copied.

  • Neshura

    It’s not immediately clear whether you are talking about “rent” in the economic sense or “rent” in the contract sense. It seems, actually, that it is leading to some misunderstandings in the comments. I would suggest that “rent” is actually an insufficiently clear term.

    The apolitical phrase for this is “product service systems” (PSSs), which I think is the concept you are trying to get at. I’ve heard it best put as — you don’t want the drill, you want the hole it makes. You don’t want the CD, you want the music. You don’t want the book, you want the story it tells. Essentially, PSSs seek to understand and narrow down the utility that the (example) drill provides, and give customers access to the service for a lower marginal price. Yes, there are people who collect tools like drills for the sake of having tools; Home Depot counts on these customers. PSSs are not for collectors of books, CDs, and power tools, but for utility users.

    Netflix. The now-defunct-as-a-PSS Peerflix. Libraries. Rental car agencies. Timeshares. All PSSs. (And for that matter, so are power plants amd parking structures.) The internet allows you to remake old-and-busted “collective ownership” into new-and-hot “collective usership”.

    There are two companies that I know of competing for the neighborhood space of purely localized collective usership: and I haven’t used either one, but I have heard that someone put up a horse on loanables.

    • @Neshura: You wrote: “The apolitical phrase for this is “product service systems” (PSSs), which I think is the concept you are trying to get at. I’ve heard it best put as — you don’t want the drill, you want the hole it makes. You don’t want the CD, you want the music. You don’t want the book, you want the story it tells.”

      Yes, that is what I meant by the disembodiment of goods as they become services. You’ve supplied the technical term. I think this trend encourages non-ownership. Why own a drill when you can hire a hole-maker?

  • Danielly

    As a DJ I need to own the music I play with. As a music producer I need to own the samples (not so much the software) for legal reasons.

    But I ‘access’ a lot of other content for free.

    I think people will ultimately need to have a choice of renting, accessing and owning. The people who sell these options must show the consumers the ‘real’ value in each option so that the consumer will have to decide what they want the ‘thing’ (content, product, service) for. In turn the consumer will make the choice based on their individual needs.

  • Brandon

    As long as the service is expanding and improving, I don’t see why one wouldn’t be against a never ending payment.

    For instance, if I knew the offerings in the service I rent continued to expand and build, why wouldn’t someone be willing to pay?

    Instead, if I buy and own a book, it will never expand. You own the book in its static form.

    To reply to this commment:

    “You can never protect yourself against rent increases, the imposition of unreasonable rules, or arbitrary blockage of access. Ownership protects against all of these.”

    Sure you can, it’s called a vote. And you do that with each dollar you choose to spend.

    It’s easier for customers to organize nowadays and companies are slowly losing their control over the transaction. It wouldn’t take much time for them to organize against any of the items you listed above.

  • Elias Bizannes

    Excellent post!

    I made a very similar conclusion recently:

    Ownership is a concept only due to the sophistication of our society. With a functioning government, we can regulate deeds and enforce the rules, to recognise people’s ownership. But I believe that just like ownership is a hallmark of a sophisticated society, we’ve now progressed to a new level – that of “access”.

    Access is an evolving type of economics that will not kill ownership, but rather dwarf it. There will still be a place for ownership, but the accessonomics paradigm will be the new dominant way our society works.

    The other point to make, is that with a digital world, the paradigm of ownership doesn’t make sense. How can you say you “own” data? Ownership is when you have the ability to deny usage by another party: now that I have posted this comment, I have no way to deny usage by yourself, by the search engines, or by another person making a derivative work.

    That’s why the economics of “access” makes more sense. The economic benefit of me posting this comment comes not from controlling its usage, but seeing its reuse.

  • Suzanne Lainson

    People who want to own can still own. But for a lot of people, having access to mass amounts of content/data is preferable to spending the same amount for fewer items. I subscribe to satellite radio because I want variety rather than to buy one album a month from iTunes.

    Many people lease cars these days rather than own. If ownership meant that much to them, they wouldn’t do it. Similarly, NetFlix is doing well serving all the people who want to see many movies. YouTube is a great way to view clips from old TV shows. It serves its purpose and doesn’t require that people go out and buy all of that video.

    People have also gotten used to replacing items rather quickly. Many people replaced all their vinyl records and then cassettes with CDs. So buying something now with the idea that you will own it the rest of your life doesn’t really reflect what most people do.

  • Chip

    I think this model, or something very similar to it, is inevitable. We are only waiting on fast, cheap, and (this is the really important bit) unmetered broadband to get to most of the country. Once everybody has fiber to their home, broadcast television and movies sold on physical media will not be long for this world. Hulu has already proven that media companies can make money by making their material available on demand. Once bandwidth costs drop to essentially nothing (eventually they will), there is no reason that Hulu or a similar service couldn’t stream EVERY episode of EVERY show ever broadcast.

  • Cory Malnarick

    No, owning is better than access. I do not want to live in a society that favors the community over the individual.

  • nano

    indeed, this is general trend. yet ‘actual’ ‘ownership’ will always be a niche.

    if only because i like to watch movies & listen to music even i can’t get online at that moment.

    BluRay will do OK because of this. We all have bookshelves at home, though there are libraries where they are free.

  • MpVpRb

    I might agree in theory.

    But, as usual, messy reality intrudes.

    If there was a reliable source of online music, movies and ebooks that never went down, never went out of business, never purged their catalogs of unpopular material, never changed their policies, I would agree. renting is better than owning.

    But that mythical world is many years away.

    The world we live in has undependable net connections and companies that launch with great fanfare, only to go bust in a few years.

    I would rather trust myself. I understand that I must protect my CD collection from theft and fire. I understand that I need to back up my digital files. But I trust myself a LOT more than some digital content provider, who may be gone next week, or decide that my favorite stuff just isn’t worth serving anymore.

  • Dylan

    How can the model of a public library fit into
    This future of access and rentals. Isn’t that in
    Some sense what it excels at. The issue of course
    Would remain funding. Taxation, late fees, can
    Either of these revenue streams fit into future models
    That exist on the web. If not, how?

  • Alexander Muse

    You must not live in Dallas. The best roads are actually private, you must pay a toll to access them. You have no right to drive on the roads and the owners can grant or revoke access to their roads as they see fit.

  • Wayne Keyser

    A couple of earlier posters pointed out that once you stop renting, you lose access, and that “durable, guaranteed access is a hurdle right now.”

    Has anyone considered the “memory hole” information can vanish into when the provider decides to make it disappear?

    It’s already a real problem: “Oops! I could have sworn that page was bookmarked … where’d it go?” Now what happens when that book/video/article/whatever just vanishes, either from lack of support (“I stopped paying to keep that site up, it was a hassle and too expensive”) or from malice (“I know there was a detailed report about global warming, but it is this administration’s policy that global warming is not real”) ?????

  • Brenda

    Biggest trepidation is access to the media. I buy the book because i want to read it more than once. – it’s not so much a cost decision, as an access decision.

    Media demand leaves the potential the media won’t be there next time, it’ll be withdrawn.

    I subscribe to a music service – it lets me download, and it lets me re-download unlimited times.

    except when the album is withdrawn by the label — and this happens very very often. most commonly the album is suddenly not available on New Zealand. It’ll be sitting there on the website, where i downloaded it last month, but today there’s a message “We’re sorry this albumn is not available in New Zealand”.

    I don’t want to find i can’t refer back to that inciteful book i read last month, because it’s been withdrawn from the New Zealand market – or they decided you need to be running windows to play it – or because they decided to delete that chapter.

  • Carlos

    Yes to your point KK, but to ensure access, mechanisms are better than assurances. We cling to ownership because hard earned experience has underscored this truth.

  • Roger Karraker

    Note too that the idea of shared use can encompass all kinds of “goods.” In the past seven years I’ve had 10 occasions to exchange my home with others. I live in California’s wine country, 65 miles from San Francisco. I’ve exchanged with other families in Seattle; New York City (twice); upstate New York; France (Paris, Avignon, the Loire and the Pyrenees) and so on. I’ve just concluded arrangements for a July exchange in Copenhagen and hope to arrange two more exchanges for 2009.

    Over time these exchanges have encompassed more. Typically we exchange cars as well. And last year in the Loire we also exchanged cellphones, since it’s so much easier to use an existing phone than set up a new one.

    I was born in 1944, so I’m a kind of “pre-boomer”. As we retire, expect to see these informal, cashless exchanges grow mightily.

  • John Banfill

    Much ownership satisfies a desire for power rather than need. Power is a deep-seated biological desire related to survival and reproduction. Luxury goods serve more as a symbol of power rather than a desire for a useful object. Money itself is nothing more than virtual power.

    In the future, will we recognize people who are able to give free goods or services as more powerful than those who desire to hoard for their own vain display of their personal power?

    I would love to know your thoughts on power from your unique perspective.

  • Adam Sheppard

    As always, a beautifully written piece Kevin. We’ve been noticing similar trends at and are brainstorming a number of consumer concepts to allow consumers to share their assets with their friends and neighbors.

    For more visit

  • Kate

    The other problem is what happens if whoever you are renting from decides to remove an item that you were enjoying/using?

    An example: I’m a subscriber to the online version of Cook’s Illustrated magazine– keeping the back issues is bulky, and as a vegetarian there are only a few usable articles per issue. So subscribing online is more cost effective.

    But this Christmas I remember seeing a desparate plea posted on Cook’s Illustrated’s discussion boards from a woman who had been looking up a particular cookie recipe for years that had been a “web only” extra, that for whatever reason Cook’s decided to remove. Not having the recipe was going to mess with her family Christmas tradition. Fortunately, someone else had it saved locally and was able to upload it for her.

    That sort of thing could happen with any rented content. And you might argue that for a recipe she should have just printed it out and kept it somewhere, but isn’t that part of the point of renting content, that you don’t have to do that? And what if instead of a recipe it was sound recording or a movie?

    Renting content is fine for content that you wouldn’t mind losing access to. But there are always some kinds of content people will want to own.

  • John


    I first want to say I really appreciate your intellect a insight on these subjects, even though I don’t agree with your conclusion(s).

    An “ownership less” society will be very compelling for many considering that technology and automation have contributed to declining wages for most people. Declining wages (when adjusted for inflation and regional cost of living) have forced people to take on high levels of debt and leverage which has recently come crumbling down in the form of a global credit crisis.

    Technological unemployment (and underemployment) will continue to cause havoc within the US as automation and intelligent algorithms continue to move up the pay scale over the next decade. No political administration has a method to resolve this problem considering that most are unwilling to accept it’s reality. Even a 1930’s New Deal-like works program or a government imposed ‘Green Collar’ economy won’t significantly reduce unemployment because machines and automation require less human workers than it did 70 years ago. 

    As technology and automation commoditized manual labor over the last century, there’s no surprise that a man’s physical strength has become marginalized and blue-collar wages became stagnant. While this is a problem, it will pale to the issues that will arise as advanced algorithms and narrow A.I. continue to commoditize human intelligence by cultivating it. The commoditizing of intelligence is now driving down wages in technological centric and service based industries and this will continue for the unforeseeable future.

    While former US Secretary Henry Paulson has been wrong on many things, he was correct when he stated these facts about outsourcing and automation back in Feb. 2008:

    “You may not know it, but who is the largest manufacturer in the world? The U.S., by a lot. It’s fascinating. When I had looked at the data in 1950…manufacturing jobs in the U.S. were about 30 percent of the country then, and there are about 15 million manufacturing jobs, OK? Today, we’ve got the same 15 million manufacturing jobs; they’re about 10 percent. But the output has gone up seven times over that period, and…our manufacturing base is two-and-a-half times larger than China, it’s bigger than Japan, it’s bigger than Germany. This is a story about automation”.

  • otoburb

    How about the idea of owning one’s access to the “magic rental store”?

    Surely, if there was one thing worth “owning” in the networked world, it would be the access [point, bandwidth, infrastructure, or other specific definition].

    • @ otoburb: You say: How about the idea of owning one’s access to the “magic rental store”?

      Right! Should the magic rental store be a private common or a public institution? Worth conjuring whether there could be a workable opensource, creative commons, wiki-ish magic rental store.

  • Michal Migurski

    Kevin, what you’re saying makes sense insofar as the thing to be accessed is a commodity, or at least duplicable. For music or film, you’re right: there’s no need for me to keep a video library as long as I have access to any given film on demand, from the wider web. I do keep music around largely because iTunes wraps up the valuable parts (play history, ratings, playlists) with the commodity parts (the songs themselves). But as Jason Scott shows in an important recent piece on the shuttering of AOL Hometown (, mere access to the things you truly value can irrevocably disappear in an instant.

    You mention mortgages above: I think the metaphor can be extended to accommodate the current mortgage crisis as well, a result of irrational optimism colliding with worldly constraints.

    • @ Michal Migurski: You bring up a related issue, which is how about stuff whose ownership is not clear at the moment. Or even things you “own” but are embedded in a platform like your constructions in Second Life. If SL were to disappear, so would your SL homes and everythign else. Their disappearance is out of your control. In this case it doesn’t matter whether you own it or rent it, it is gone. So I think it is a related issue about the nature of property, which is worth exploring.

  • merry

    My wife has very cute, nice and beautiful feet, and when she wears Cheap UGG boots after her pedicure I go crazy. Yesterday i find a store is ugg boots on sale, i will buy one for my wife for her birthday present next week!

  • David Scott

    Great post! Like Elias, I was also inspired recently to write about this subject after seeing how Apple was handling the shift to DRM free copies of music that customers had already bought. I don’t know if Apple has the same end in mind, but regardless, they might have uncovered a middle road through which we can move from the current outdated model to a new one with as little pain as possible. You can check it out at But really, after reading your article, I realize that I’m only talking about the transition phase and not where things will end up. Really, the main barrier to not needing your own copy right now is bandwidth. And that barrier might last a while. But in the meantime, there’s lots we can do to move forward. Hopefully either the powers that be will start to share this vision or we’ll find a way to bring it about in spite of them.

  • john andrews

    Many rental systems are financial systems. They invest capital and recover it and then some – as much as possible. It has little to do with the goods and everything to do with the terms. Rental furniture, rental properties, rental cars. It’s finance, more than commerce.

    For music and other experience goods, it’s licensed not rented.

  • mrsclean

    If the argument is that everything that is a commodity should be _also_ available to rent, great. If the argument is that renting should replace ownership… yikes. That sounds like a really really bad idea.

    Who controls, defines, protects and delivers “ubiquity”? If the answer is: government or the market. Heh. The wisdom of both is clearly beyond reproach.

    What would dissent look like without ownership? Is there a relationship between dissent and private property?

    On the plus side.. I would love to rent my food, and my toilet paper.

    • @ Mrsclean: You write:

      If the argument is that everything that is a commodity should be _also_ available to rent, great. If the argument is that renting should replace ownership… yikes.

      I am arguing the former: that rental is a better option, but should not replace the option of ownership. Sorry I did not make that clearer. In general I am pro-choice in technology.

  • Christopher Fahey

    As far as intangibles go, after reading your last post about ownership I noted ( that the whole idea of individuals owning media, in particular music, is actually a uniquely 20th-century phenomenon, that came and went as a blip in the history of human ideas.

    As for *tangible* goods, I would add that by virtue of the poor quality and disposability of modern commodities, many people already in effect “rent” their furniture, consumer electronics, and other goods. They pay a far lower price than a good quality product would and should cost, and after a very short amount of time they throw it away and buy a new one.

    Think of a brand new $30 IKEA chair versus a $150 antique 1950’s modernist chair of similar design. The IKEA chair will last, maybe, two years before going into the trash. The antique may have been around for 50 years and ready for 50 more. The economics seem obviously in favor of the antique, but for most people, however, the $30 chair is their only affordable option. It’s damn near renting for them — they pay for it, use it, then lose it.

    So, in a way, if you combine your idea of increasing the rent-ification of tangible goods with making the goods themselves more durable, we might even manage to make some progress on the sustainability front as well.

    • @ Christopher Fahey: Yes, I think you can think of disposable goods as a strange kind of “rental” — in the sense that it is temporary possession. But in some ways this is NOT the same thing as having instant access to any item you want when you want it. You may buy a camera you really like and then not have access to it when it breaks or is outmoded by upgrades.

  • Tim

    Rental of that which you require to live is slavery to the owner. Ownership, at least of some things, is necessary for freedom.

  • Banyan

    ust off the top of my head – as I listen to out of work construction tradespeoplem and underemployed real estate related people, and transaction starved appliance and furnishings salespeople, I see they are expecting things to return to “normal” in residential construction and sales. But I’ve been tending to think in such terms as you use in this entry – that new times are upon us and a new generation is coming along that does not expect to stay in one place long, that anticipates a number of “moves” during one’s life simply to stay employed. I think more and more residential units of all types – houses, condos, apartments – will be built or remodeled into rentals.

    I haven’t thought through the details so perhaps this is wrong. It simply seems that for many, during most of their lives, home ownership not only won’t be possible but will also not be desirable. If property prices are not exploding upwards each year one finds owning a home a major cash sump and financial liability for the first few years with no financial payoff. If you will only be there a year, or two, or five, you’d be better off putting the cash in a CD. And, you’d be free of the hassles of “ownership”. I can’t say I’m personally comfortable with this – it’s new to me – but I think it’s not so uncomfortable to younger people.

  • Gordon

    One of the drawbacks with renting is the trend towards consolidation and with that consolidation an associated control that could remove or censor rentals.

    Using an admittedly shallow example, when George Lucas remastered Star Wars he altered the Greedo/Han shootout. For a period of time the only DVDs that were available included this rework. You could only find the original versions on older VHS tapes. If it were all delivered in a rental model, the original version may simply cease to exist.

    This is one of main reasons why I will likely continue to keep a small amount of physical goods even if they can be rented easily – to ensure I have access to a version that is important to me.

    Two additional examples:
    1) You couldn’t get Blade Runner with the original voiceover until late last year.
    2) The Cadbury Conspiracy, BJ Novak on Conan.

    • @ Gordon: You are right. If you can’t get all versions of things, renting is not better. I am assuming that in the long run, you will be able to get all versions of anything. In other words, if someone is selling something, they will also “rent” it. But as long as versions or works are unavailable then obviously owning is better.

      The more interesting case is what happens when something is available and then the creator withdraws the work for whatever reason. THAT is the fear of many about “renting” works. It remains to be seen whether it will be possible to “withdraw” a work in this regime. It is already difficult to withdraw a web page since there is Google cache.

  • Alex Tolley

    Forgotten the lesson of “1984” already? As Gordon below notes, if you don’t own it, you only have access (or not) to the item that is made available. Think of SaaS offerings – access is there, but you have to accept the current version, whether you like it or not.For items that you may use occasionally or are consumed only, then access is fine. But this does not apply to all goods. Imagine the SciFi scenario where the house you returned to at the end of the day was the one made available to you from the inventory. Not nice. (There was a reason Holiday Inn’s were the same across the US).

    Finally, access means fewer copies of cultural goods. We all know the loss we had when the library at Alexandria was burned. Great access for scholars, not so good for posterity. Living things “own” their own genomes, that is a good thing for robustness and evolution, not a bad one.

  • Michael Slaughter

    While I agree with the premise as it relates to shared web-content (which is truly owned by someone else), I disagree with the comments regarding roads. You DO own the roads. The United States is a county “Of the people, for the people, by the people”. Sure, the Government “owns” the roads, but you own the government, which directly obligates you to the “responsibility of care” as you put it. When I was an exchange student in Mexico I noticed that citizens swept their garbage out into the street. I asked a Mexican professor about it and he said “in America the people feel a sense of ownership for common spaces but in Mexico anything outside the front door is the government’s problem”. It is exactly this kind of disconnect from our social responsibility that is driving many of the stupid decisions we have today. I realize that you did not intend to step on a political landmine with this article, but you should reevaluate your thinking about ownership as it pertains to common goods such as roads that are “owned” by the government. That means YOU.

  • Carlos Martins

    I mostly agree with you. And more so, I’m actually *counting* on it to be true (hopefully before too long.)

    It’s completely insane people continually downloading and storing Terabytes of data over the years, duplicate data like songs and movies, that could – as you very well put – simply “accessed” whenever you felt like it.

    As for the rent thing… hopefully we’ll get to a point where we pay a tax in out utilities bill (like the TV/radio tax I currently pay with my electric Bill) to have access to that kind of stuff and be done with it.

    We already pay taxes in most stuff: CDs/DVDs, etc.

    The most complicated thing I see in the middle of all this is the “revolution” that needs to happen in the distribution/production channels.

    Does it really makes sense for an artist to receive just a small fraction of the money for something they created, while the companies get 90%?

    Those companies are interested in making us continuously pay for the same music and movies, over and over again, from tape to vinyl to cds to super audio-cds, from VHS tapes to DVDs, to Blu ray discs, and so on…

  • John

    Don’t forget there are really no new ideas, only that digital technology is able to breathe new life into old/failed ones. When comes to the creation of a non-ownership society (which itself is also nothing new) was most clearly stated/defined by Karl Marx when he said:

    “The theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.” -Karl Marx

  • G

    I started saying this about ten years ago. I believed that the only way to manage digital distribution was a monthly service that gives you on-demand access to every movie, show, song, book, and so on as possible. I thought any efforts to control piracy would be quickly discarded as unworkable and things would naturally evolve to this paradigm, as it’s the only one that makes sense, for many of the reasons you point out (although an advertising-supported model may also make sense as opposed to the subscription model, I predicted users would be able to make that choice, and probably by degrees).

    Now I think I overestimated the ability of media companies to change, and I think it may be too late – they’re already missing this boat, and they may lose simply to storage technology.

    I’m a nomad, and I know the net is still far from ubiquitous. I need to keep my media offline, because bandwidth can still be hard to come by. There are still hotels that think they can charge by the hour for wi-fi, crazy as that sounds.

    Right now, for a touch over a hundred bones, I can buy a drive that stores roughly a thousand movies. A little more money, you’re talking 1,500 movies. In another six months, probably 2,000. Music? Forget about it – I already have more music than I could ever listen to. Same with books. It’s all on my drive. For another hundred bucks, I can make a copy of all this and stash it somewhere safe.

    If downloading isn’t fast enough, I can meet other like-minded people and swap files in person. Have a cup of coffee and trade a couple hundred obscure documentaries or blockbusters, whatever you want. I’ve already got weeks worth of TV and film backlogged, and there’s plenty more room to go.

    I no longer need the on-demand service. I’m not sure I’d want it, just because I bet they’d find a way to monkey it up (Netflix seems to be excepted). I’d love to see the creators get paid for all the media I’ve archived, but even to this late day, no one has a system to give me what I want and let me pay for it. It’s madness.

    Fast forward five-ten years. What happens when everyone has a 50-terabyte drive in their backpack? My netbook already has a 500-gig drive, and it contains an overwhelming amount of media. In 2014, why would I bother with a Netflix, a Rhapsody or a Kindle when I already have, as far I’m concerned, the entire history of great cinema, music and literature in a one-pound box, everywhere I go? How many Johnny Appleseeds will it take before even the non-geeks have copied the treasure trove from people like me? It’ll spread like Commodore 64 game piracy did back in the day.

    The biggest advantage I can see to the on-demand service is immediacy – to get anything, even the newest material, without waiting. It may be a good enough advantage, but they need to get the ball rolling ASAP.

    The media companies should’ve started building the mother of on-demand services years ago, but they missed the boat and focused on DRM and lawsuits and half-heartedly dicking around instead. They’re slowly moving in the right direction, but I bet it won’t be fast enough.

  • Will

    What you are talking about is a loss of control. I think we need to separate essential from non-essential services. If you rent you are at the mercy of those providing the service, having places available to rent and to rate hikes (electricity, rent, etc). By owning you remove this dependency and gain control.

    If you think about electricity it is currently centralized. Therefore we are dependent on it to be available, not to go down, not to get hit by terrorism. If you look at food it is often centralized (salad) and it susceptible to food poisining, terrorism, etc. So we need decentralized, local sources of power, food, etc. Honda is working on a home energy station which would allow us to power our own homes. Much preferable than renting from centralized sources IMO.

  • Jacek Artymiak

    I lived under a system that allowed people to own very little, but had a vast network of libraries. A large number of books were not available, because they were censored. However, because people could smuggle printed copies from abroad, those who tried really hard and risked their freedom, could read the books there were excluded from the state-owned bookstores and free libraries.

    You have to remember that every time you give up ownership for access, there will form a group who controls access.

    So, ownership, as failed as it is, is a much better alternative to access. It is much more difficult to confiscate 1 billion copies of the PDF with the Constitution of the United States than to turn off access to it.

  • elyk

    im pretty sure this concept is called the public library

  • john

    Another thing I forgot to add is a little thing called sales tax. State governments (especially here in California) are already in serious trouble because of over spending and it’s expected our sales tax rate will be going up. If ‘America 3.0’ adopts and ownership-less social/economic model than I assume that individuals will be taxed per instance of ‘access’. Will those who access more content on an hourly basis be required to pay more taxes or will it be an one size fits all taxable model?

    Could governments use this type of national subscription service as a method to silence dissidence by preventing the people who they disapprove the ability to access content on the cloud. Individuals will all be using some type of Ipv6 addressable and trackable digital devices by then, and while this will make access to the cloud easier, it will also make it easier to be monitored and controlled?

    When it comes to a ownership-less society Karl Marx said it best:
    “The theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property.” -Karl Marx

  • Gordon

    KK said: “It is already difficult to withdraw a web page since there is Google cache.”

    I’d agree that it is difficult to withdraw a web page, but it’s easy to replace it with nothing to effectively delete it.

    An excellent current example was Barack Obama’s site which had pages on technology and economy. In early November the agenda pages were replaced with blanks and Google cache replaced their version with the empty version. I caught the change when Google cache had purged the economy agenda but not the technology one.

    I guess my point regarding renting and availability, is that if the data is in the hands of a few, the original source can be lost. Not necessarily through malice, but simply as a consequence of technical limitations. In these scenarios data that is important to you will need to be archived and stored locally in some form.

    • @ Gordon: Cache’s don’t solve the problem completely. I suspect a pattern that might emerge is this: you “rent” your stuff and you also buy insurance from a company that essentially guarantees to replace things that disappear. Or you make a back up of things you really care about.

      I don’t believe for a second that ownership will disappear. I just think that for many things, for many people, the option to not own will be better than owning. Not without downsides, or occasional hassles. As renting a home is today. There are lots of reasons why not, but for many folks, more reasons why to.

  • Michal Migurski

    @Kevin Kelly: “Why own a drill when you can hire a hole-maker?”

    Well it depends on how many holes you need, how often, and how fast, doesn’t it?

    (I’m making a mental note to read Nature Of The Firm finally: “Coase’s analysis proceeds by considering the conditions under which it makes sense for an entrepreneur to seek hired help instead of contracting out for some particular task”)

  • Bob Cooper

    Great brain-stretching stuff, as usual Kevin. It’s fascinating that with 75% of the U.S. economy now represented by service, we still have no common language, iconography or even concepts for designing and building great services. Can you imagine what would kind of chaos would ensue if we did NOT have standards such as blueprints, schematics, etc. for other design disciplines such as product design, architecture or engineering? We are addressing these kinds of issues on our blog at Your insights and challenges for the nascent service design industry are most appreciated.

  • CanadianAlien

    There is a joke about aliens watching humans with pets from space. After a while they conclude that the pets are the beings in control .. owner picks up pets waste, works to feed and house pet, etc. Same joke could be made about ‘stuff’. Humans working to maintain capital assets from their inevitable and inexorable decline in condition and value. Who owns who? (Or what owns who?)

    Kevin is on the right track. But what he is missing is that wealth is essentially capital assets. Cash flows from that (not always .. liquid assets not always hard to come by .. but a la Warren Buffet, in long term…)

    Rather than rent .. the concept needs .. NEEDS .. to be fractional ownership. If majority rents .. someone owns. Someone has tools to build wealth and renters don’t. Need .. NEED .. to have process/system that allows everyone (who is ready or desires) to have chance to build equity.

    Ok, maybe, in future, wealth, or equity is ideas or knowledge. Not today though. Not in the next 2 years. Not in next 5 years. Paradigm shift needs to happen. In meantime, the primary way normal, low to not rich income people build equity .. wealth .. is by ownership of property, investment vehicles.

    May be ironic, but I am over 40 yrs of age. Though am high performing professional (IT consultant) who travels then works then travels then works .. have never owned property. Last decade have worked as contractor. No car for nearly two decades. Over past decade, I have increasingly, maybe pathelogically, minimized my possessions. Now am down to one (ONE) suitcase (backpack). Have gone through iterations of ownership, renting apts, buying furniture, storing it, selling it, re-acquiring it, loop …

    My ideal world is:

    – I can slide in an out of adult, professional, furnished living accommodations

    – my minimal personal belongings come with me all other goods are provided

    – I will give some entity .. say $1000 US every month .. to give me a studio or 1 bdrm unit, fully furnished (from dishes, dishwasher, clotheswasher/dryer, tv, bed, bedding, etc) .. I will expect that i can move in at drop of hat .. leave at drop of a hat .. get same in Hong Kong, Toronto, Miami, Paris etc.

    – think storage unit meets condo/apartment rental .. my personal goods follow me .. plug in .. while i am travelling .. my goods are put into storage .. all part of the deal

    – I also get equity in return for my paymnet ..think timeshare .. think unit fund .. think fractional ownerhsip

    – could extend this to clothing .. imagine not having to bring clothes .. but as part of monthly cost .. clothes are always there .. two t-shirts, 5 pairs of underwear, one toothbrush, etc

    Bottom line, as Kevin points out, I don’t have worry about owning stuff… but I do get benefits of building equity/wealth .. and freedom of rental.

    This is not just a money maker .. for all concerned .. but is a shift from burden of ownership of stuff.

    Someone please make it happen!

  • Morgan Warstler


    why stop there?

    I don’t think you can “own” the digital. It demeans the concept of ownership. Ownership has historically implied the atomic. Even breeding cattle meant you had to feed and care for them with the atomic.

    This is why the labels were so grossly offensive in their attempts to convert the definition of ownership to the digital.

    The valuable thing was the plastic disk, not the arrangement of bits on it. This is why, a single rip of the disk was of course legal, and therefore, if you could break the disk, and trade away the digital copy while someone else listens to it…

    Ownership is a crucial part of our lives, we must not let the proliferation of the digital do damage to our psychic framework and half a millenia of contract law, that when I own this pile of atoms, you don’t – and vice versa.

    If we could copy food or copy oil, we could all live fat and happy.

    But not let our desire to live fat and happy digital lives cause us to forget that the atomic exists much further down maselow’s hierarchy.

  • Malcolm Teas

    On a very prosaic level, if I pay money and buy something, I have ownership and – within social and legal limits – can do what I please with this thing.

    However, if I subscribe to something I cannot do the same. My legal rights are more limited and full “ownership” is not mine. The real owner may decide to stop providing the data (as happened with some DRM music recently).

    Plus, there’s the need to keep paying for the thing too. The increasing subscription fees for TV, movies, and many other things etc. raise my monthly costs and require me to have a consistent income or sufficient financial reserves. Ownership does not require that.

    While it’s easy enough to realize that I don’t need HBO, NetFlix, or whatever and simply to terminate that service. At some point various subscriptions – like my ISP or cell phone connections (which are not directly comperable) – would become essential enough that I would become a lesser member of society if I didn’t have that.

    Ownership and subscription/rent have substantial social differences that you’re not recognizing.

  • Hank Roberts

    A very conservative inlaw of mine — a brilliant programmer — was complaining to me about the difficulty of going to the library and saying he would rather just get all the text he needed online. He was researching old treaty language at the time.

    I sent him a few pages from 1984, the bits describing the job of taking words out of newspaper articles and books to rewrite history, and pointed out how much easier that would be nowadays. He’d never imagined anyone could even imagine doing such a thing.

    (They raise them sheltered from disturbing ideas and patriotic in the Dakotas, I guess.)

    He’s been rethinking a few things since, and has suffered some damage to his faith in markets:

    “I never trusted the government — but I always thought corporations would be honest.”

    Want a more immediate example of why owning hard copy matters, and why relying on others means they control what you know?

    Guantanamo Case Files in Disarray – 16 hours ago
    Several former Bush administration officials agreed that the files are incomplete and that no single government entity was charged with pulling together all … Washington Post

  • Hank Roberts

    One other thought: natural born persons are mortal. Got heirs? Leaving them anything?
    Corporations are immortal persons. Want your heirs to have to start over making the rent on the simple stuff?

    David Brin wrote recently that government is the last Commons we have, now that the natural world is either owned or exhausted.

    I don’t have an better answer. Everything turns into something else in 20 years, as Ken MacLeod wrote in “All Your Firewall Belong to Us” recently:

    “… Finally, we can be sure that if there is indeed a big turn away from neo-liberalism and towards regulation and large-scale projects, lots and lots of things will go horribly wrong, fortunes unimaginable today will be squandered on gigantic schemes that never pay off, and conflicts and contradictions will build up until that trend, too, is reversed or turns into something different in twenty years time or less. And, no doubt, there’ll be science fiction writers and futurologists standing up in front of conferences like this and saying that everything they’ve been saying for the past twenty years is all out of date and we have to brace ourselves for a sharp turn to the free market….”

  • Hubert Guillaud

    It’s remember me “The Age of Access” by Jeremy Rifkin who made relevent critics of the new culture of hypercapitalism. He show that, if property decrease for people and public sphere, it increases for businesses.

  • Blogscomments4

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  • Mike

    When I first read about this concept in Wired, I was dubious. My main objection was that the problem with access is that it’s controlled by someone other than me, and hence, there’s no guarantee that I’ll always have it. This pile of CDs that I’ve got here… I’ll always have them, unless I choose not to (thanks to digital backups. Given everything in the news lately about people losing their entire Google cloud content… what say you on this front?

    • Kevin_Kelly

      It is Google’s strong interest to keep customers happy. They will resolve the issue. But if you are doing questionable things then you may want to own rather than have access.