Future Tense

What’s the Future of Ownership?

An introduction to our October Futurography topic.


I feel like I have more junk in my life than ever before. Why are we talking about the end of ownership?

That’s a complicated question, but let’s start with three things: First, we seem to be losing control over the media that we consume. When we purchase digital media—e-books and the like—we remain tethered to the services from which we bought them. Furthermore, we’ve largely ceded management of our music and film collections, for example. We used to buy physical copies of media and do with them what we wanted, but we now pay companies such as Netflix and Spotify for access to streaming content. We have more options than ever before, but all those possibilities come at the expense of ownership.

Meanwhile, the rise of the so-called sharing economy is creating a situation in which we may not even own our cars, and it’s entirely possible that other objects in our lives will soon follow suit.

The third component is that even when you do outright own a physical object, you can’t always do with it whatever you want. If some companies had their way, we wouldn’t even be able to modify our smartphones (or tractors, or other high-tech gear)!

Let’s start with the media question. I refuse to think there’s a good reason to get nostalgic about lugging books and CD cases around with me everywhere.

I’m with you on that, but there is a downside. Today, even items that we theoretically “own” sometimes aren’t really ours. Back in 2009, Amazon remotely deleted copies of 1984 from customers’ Kindles, a telling reminder that digital media never really belongs to us. The company claimed that the version of the book had been published in error and refunded users’ money, but it’s something that would have never happened with physical copies of a book.

That’s a particularly striking example, but it’s hardly the only one. Music aficionados have been horrified to learn that Apple Music was messing with their MP3 collections in iTunes, sometimes even removing copies of songs that it considered duplicates of other tracks when they were actually hard-to-find rarities. Just trying to make sense of what was going on literally led Slate’s Leon Neyfakh to break out in hives. As physical media becomes increasingly obsolete, such stories will probably become ever more common.

Hives? Color me outraged! How does it have the right to do that? Is it even legal?

That’s a complicated question, not least of all because the companies streaming our media frequently don’t really own it, either. Where a video rental store could purchase a VHS tape and circulate it until fell apart, Netflix has to negotiate deals with copyright holders—for instance, scoring the right to stream Marvel films from Disney. That’s why you see lists on sites such as Slate telling you what to watch on this or that service before it expires. It’s also why those streaming platforms are making such concentrated pushes to produce their own original content: Netflix and its ilk aren’t just aiming to score exclusives; they’re also trying to guarantee some sense of constancy in their own libraries.

So what does all of this have to do with Uber?

Despite the jargon, many so-called sharing economy companies don’t actually want to share. Companies such as Uber and Lyft have been frank about their goals, suggesting that they want to replace our personal cars with fleets of shared, on-demand vehicles that show up when we need them. Indeed, their human drivers may just be seen as an introductory, intermediary stage in their development, as Uber’s current experiments in Pittsburgh with semi-driverless cars suggest. (Whatever you do, do not tell your Uber or Lyft drivers this. It bums them out.)

It may seem unlikely that we’d give up our cars in favor of these fleets of roaming robo-taxis, but the very real rise of autonomous vehicles may make the scheme feasible: If we’re not actually controlling our cars, do we really need to own them? That possibility has implications for urban and suburban infrastructure, potentially promising to change the way we build houses (no need for a garage!) and design civic spaces (autonomous vehicles might mean narrower roadways, allowing wider sidewalks).

But it also presents striking challenges to notions of public ownership. Letting Uber and similar companies become our primary transportation options could seriously undermine our access to public transportation options. Although some research suggests that these would-be disruptors aren’t going to replace public transportation options altogether, their rise may still put pressure on low-income communities that have traditionally been underserved by private companies.

All this self-driving car stuff still seems pretty distant, and I’m happy to stream Parks & Rec instead of owning the box set. Convince me that this is a big deal right now.

Think about the devices you use to actually stream your shows. Most smartphones limit the degree to which users can modify them without violating their terms of service. Try to get a third-party service to repair your broken iPhone, for example, and Apple might well brick the whole device. It’s not just phones: Set out to repair a tractor these days, and you might run afoul of the copyright restrictions protecting the software that ordinarily keeps it running. Even when companies offer reasonable explanations for such practices, they’re still effectively controlling the way we use their products long after we purchase them.

Such frustrations may well become more widespread, thanks to the so-called internet of things, the web of internet-connected devices and tools. Thanks to the possibility of remotely updating such a device’s firmware, the objects we buy aren’t always the ones we end up with. An update to the Nest thermostat, for example, took away owners’ ability to manage their temperature settings. Though that was a bug, it’s a reminder that companies could easily limit or restrict our ability to make our own choices about appropriate settings. We’re used to regularly updating our phones, and we’re increasingly familiar with the ways they gain and lose functionality in the process. If companies like Google have their way, however, our thermostats and ceiling fans may start experiencing similar upsets.

But we still own those devices, right?

To some extent. Arguably, though, what we really own is a shell, a hunk of hardware that’s entirely dependent on the software running within it. And if you take the time to skim that license you clicked through when you were setting your latest gadget up, you’ll probably find that we don’t own that software at all. If you believe some automobile manufacturers, that’s as true of the (increasingly complicated) software running in your car as it is of the code that your phone runs. In some cases, merely trying to investigate that underlying technology may constitute a violation of the copyright law. And in its own turn that premise means that we’re not really allowed to modify our devices, a concern that drives the “right to tinker” movement.

Ultimately, these issues come down to problems of control. We may own our cars or our internet-enabled refrigerators or whatever, but unless we can fiddle with them, we really only own them in the way we “own” players on our fantasy football teams: We can put them into play whenever we want, but we have no say in the way they actually perform.

Does all of this actually add up to the end of ownership, though?

“End” might be a little strong in this case. Those struggles over tinkering suggest that we’re really looking at the fragmentation of ownership, where owning hardware is one thing and owning firmware another altogether.

It’s also possible that we’re looking at something more like the concentration of ownership, a situation in which more and more of our stuff is held in fewer and fewer hands. In the grimmest version of that narrative, we’re headed toward a sort of techno-feudalism, where we all end up as serfs of these onetime Silicon Valley upstarts. In this sense, we’re not looking at the end of ownership per se so much as the end of individual ownership.

To be honest, I was imagining something a little more utopian when I thought about the future of ownership. Wasn’t 3-D printing supposed to set us free from the tyranny of buying things or something?

There certainly are examples along those lines—the kid who found a shortcut around the Invisalign empire by fabricating his own orthodontia, for example. Generally speaking, though, the capacities of 3-D printers are limited, and they’re likely to remain that way, unless we get to the point where the wildest dreams of nanotechnology come true and we get develop molecular assemblers that build items up from raw atomic matter.

At this point, 3-D printing is something of a legal gray area, and there isn’t clear precedent to protect the rights of patent-holders. As the printers themselves—or whatever technology takes their place—grow more powerful, we might see restrictions implemented directly within the systems themselves. In theory, for example, a printer might refuse to produce an item based on patented plans unless you paid the rights-holder a fee. Under other circumstances, a manufacturer could stop you from producing a personalized retainer. They might (not unreasonably) do so in the name of stopping you from messing up your teeth, while also conveniently protecting the rights of manufacturers.

Again, like the promise of 3-D printers, such restraints are mostly speculative for now, but given that other technology seems to be burdened with similar limits, it would hardly be surprising to see them come into play.

OK, but at least tell me that the whole corporate ownership thing is as crazy as it gets?

I mean, there are some people who theorize that we could be heading toward a climate where cars literally own and operate themselves, paying for gas and whatnot by giving rides.



This article is part of the future of ownership installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technological issue and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.