I’m in the group that believes that physical media — books, DVDs, CDs — is essentially going away. I think a sentimental or nostalgic connection will be required to convince us in the future to actually buy something that will sit on our shelves. You love Thomas Pynchon, you have all his books, so when his new one comes out you’ll buy it to reconnect to that part of you that used to love to buy things and loved the idea that your own literary cool could be signified by a physical object. That new writer who has gotten great reviews, or perhaps the thriller you’ll read at the beach — those will be bought for the Kindle. Ditto DVDs. Criterion box sets will get fancier and fancier, coming in more elaborately designed housings as the majority of films will be bought digitally.
Or perhaps, if this interesting essay by Kevin Kelly is right, you won’t buy anything. In “Better than Owning” Kelly argues that the idea of actually buying any form of media, physical or otherwise, is going away, just like physical books and CDs. In the process, concepts like value, use and the responsibilities of ownership will be redefined.
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.