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“I am what I have” — Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 1949.
“You’ll own nothing. And you’ll be happy. What you want, you’ll rent, and it’ll be delivered by drone.” — World Economic Forum’s prediction for 2030
In 2009, Amazon quietly deleted copies of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ from the Kindles of people who had bought them earlier. It happened without notice and without warning.
While it was a technical issue (regional copyright), the move showed how censorship of your digital assets works.
It showed how easy it was to control your digital assets, which you thought you owned, because you paid for it
What was supremely ironic was, of course, that Amazon was deleting copies of a novel (1984) which was all about how a totalitarian state constantly alters history by changing records of what has happened.
‘1984’ was written as a satire (and a warning) on totalitarianism of Soviet Union, but equally true of any ideology taken to its extreme. Here, the state (called as ‘Big Brother’) constantly keeps on changing history by removing all traces of them using a machine called Memory Hole. Once it has been officially ‘forgotten’ by the state, the citizens were also supposed to forget the old history and remember the alternative history as the only history.
Of course, with the digital economy resembling the California Gold Rush of the 19th Century, news of these kinds were shrugged off (Recently, Microsoft closed its ebook store in 2019, deleting all user content. You may not even heard of the news).
But the fact of not ‘owning’ anything has become entrenched, in fact a part of accepted daily life. Today not only books, but very little of what we think we ‘own’ is actually ours.
Why we have gone from analog ownership to digital ‘non-ownership’ in less than a decade has a very simple answer. The convenience factor at the heart of how digital economy works.
Essentially, by removing physical barriers, it becomes essentially free to reach out to you (Read Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson for a quick primer on how radical Free really is)
Take a book, for example. There is no printing cost, no storage space requirement, no transportation cost, no middlemen of distributors and bookshops, and no need to stock up on inventory. Essentially, the only cost that a book on Amazon incurs is the storage and bandwidth costs (which are owned by Amazon itself) and the royalty to be paid to the author. This is why Kindle books can be sold at a heavy discount to the physical books and still give high margins.
And this economic principle drives convenience.
Convenience — the holy grail of the digital economy.
We are absolute sucker for convenience; It's something that taps deep into the pleasure centres of our brain. It is what drives the essence of everything from Uber, Zomato, BigBasket, and now the 10 minute delivery promises!.
One tap and you get the book and start reading immediately. Which was science fiction stuff a few decades back!
But this comes at a cost. Loss of actual ownership.
Let's explore this in terms of books as an example.
How do you define ownership of a traditional, physical book?
Simply that the book now solely belongs to me. I can choose to keep it, lend, sell it or, if I feel like it, throw it away.
But the same does not apply to books you buy from Amazon. The answer lies in three simple, seemingly innocuous terms — DRM or Digital Right Management.
DRM is hidden deep inside the digital terms and conditions agreement we click without a second’s thought.
DRM is where you give up your ownership.
Under DRM, you are not buying a copy but simply licensing the book. A license subject to whatever restrictions the company empowered to issue that license would like to set.
DRM is also why you can’t share your ebook or download it outside of Kindle.
Which is why Amazon can legally delete any books from your digital library when they want.
What is true for books is true for almost everything around us today that we think we have ‘ownership’ — from music, movies, photographs, our chats and emails and even physical products that have a chip in it (cars, fridges etc).
Read this article to see how tractors bought by Farmers are not fully owned by them! Similarly, Tesla is an example of a future where you won't really own a car.
As technology gets more complex, and the law gets more complex and invisible, there’s been a dramatic but gradual shift to a more ambiguous way of owning things — eventually to where we might own nothing.
The shift in ownership in the digital economy has been happening behind the scenes, through deeply embedded digital device lockdowns and endless click-through licensing agreements that nobody — not even lawyers — pay attention to.
What should you do?
It's simple, really. Awareness of what you actually own and make conscious buying decision. Make an informed choice!
Me, I like to own my books.
Humans are hardwired for Endowment effect. Endowment effect is a term in social psychology which tells us we value objects in our possession over their equivalents. We don't value things we can't see or we feel we don't really possess.
While I am an unabashed proponent of ebooks, I hate the idea that a remote corporation can snatch away my memories of reading a book.
So as far as books are concerned, I buy my books wherever possible. Ebooks I prefer DRM free from places like Project Gutenberg and other independent publishers, who let you actually own the e-books.
I still buy an occasional e-book from Amazon, but only when it's impossible to get it from first two sources, but then I know I don't actually own it and tomorrow if Amazon disappears, so will my e-books. Just like movies on Netflix or music on Spotify.
Leaving you with a beautiful passage by York University professor Russell W. Belk, who coined the term “extended self” to describe how humans incorporate their belongings into their self-conception. Extended self is essentially how the endowment effect works
“When we own something, it becomes us,” Belk writes. “We’ve imprinted on it.” He mentions, as examples, the notes made in margins of books or the dings and dents objects gain through use.
“In that sense we’re not only saying that it’s ours, we’re making it uniquely ours,” he adds, “rather than a generic, fungible object that could be replaced by another.”