Featured, GreyMatter

Ownership vs Access

I was at home, pondering over the problem of finding shelf-space for my ever-increasing book collection, when I chanced upon yet another thought-provoking piece by Kevin Kelly of Technium, this time on the merits of Ownership versus Access:

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.

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.

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? 

I must confess, when viewed in this light, the concept of renting (or “timesharing” or “shared access”) did have a lot of appeal.  Especially, when I think of all the hours I have to spend each week, just to ensure that the ever-growing mass of digital content that I have to work with, is kept manageable.  And, that includes every thing from the emails at work to the digital photos of my family.  But, there’s a flip side to it, isn’t there?

What happens when the content you wanted, simply disappears from the website, just because it didn’t see enough support from its “users”?  What happens if the “original” article you read, was subsequently modified and re-published online without any trace of version history? 

As a published-author, I also have to ask myself what this means for intellectual-property creators like authors and musicians… If every one wants the “music” and not the CD, or wants the “story” and not the book, will it eventually mean that lesser and lesser folks will see it wise to invest their time producing their art, resulting in their ultimate disappearance?! 

I guess part of the answer lies in Kelly’s post: If a service provider could absolutely guarantee ‘durable’, ‘constant’ and ‘full’ access, chances are that such a service would see a lot more takers opt for “accessing” it rather than wanting to “own” it in the traditional sense of the term.  And, at least some services that are available today in the shared-access format, would be otherwise completely unaffordable for much of its intended audience – the vacation timeshare being a classic example. 

But, I still think there are a few things about ownership that modern technology cannot easily substitute.  The pleasure of jotting-down notes in the margins of your copy of the book… the joy of thumbing through poetry pages, sitting on a garden-bench… the happiness that comes with leafing through the leather-bound edition of a classic… 

Ultimately, Kevin’s view is that “Access is so superior to ownership, or possession, that it will drive the emerging intangible economy”.   While I do think the route he’s taken is in the right direction, I don’t think we’re there yet. 

In the meanwhile, I still have to figure out what to do with all those books I bought last week!