Future Tense

Paying to Have and Not to Hold

We’re increasingly paying extra to get the digital version of a book or movie.

books dvd cd.
Physical formats so quickly become outdated.


Imagine, for a moment, that you want to buy The Complete Works of Primo Levi edited by talented translator Ann Goldstein. If you were to buy a new version of the hardcover collection on Amazon, the price is $58.40. If, however, you decided that rather than adorning your shelves with Levi, you wanted to download it to your e-reader, saving yourself paper and time, you would need to pay $59.49. It would cost you more not to physically own the books.

Of course, it’s just a difference of $1.09. But spend some time on Amazon and a trend becomes clear: Many (though certainly not all) digital versions cost more than their physical counterparts. The Blu-ray Disc of the Christmas classic Love, Actually costs a very reasonable $8.68, but to download and buy the HD version on Amazon Video costs $14.99. (To download and rent it costs $3.99, while a used version is only $2.37). Download Beyoncé’s Lemonade from Apple to your iPhone for $17.99, but get the CD on Amazon for just $15.76.

Certainly this is far from the case in every instance—there are lots of examples of the digital version being cheaper than the physical. But the list will only get longer, raising the question: Why are we increasingly paying more money to not actually have the thing we’re buying? Amazon and Apple acknowledged receipt of but did not respond to requests for comment. But while we cannot know their official answers, we can nevertheless speculate as to why we’re now paying more to own without physically owning.

For one thing, we’ve reached a point at which it’s the digital version that won’t let us down. Mark Dean, assistant professor in the Department of Economics at Columbia University, surmised in an email that while he could try to create “some clever behavioral econ explanation,” he thinks the real answer is that we are paying more to download because we are learning to trust the digital, easily available version. It used to be that to have the physical copy was to have reliability and consistency. But that isn’t true anymore, he said. The internet is now reliable, and with it Amazon and Netflix. In fact, they’re more durable than the physical copy, as anyone who has scratched a CD or had a package get lost in the mail or misplaced a beloved book would likely agree.

We’ve also come to see the digital version as superior in some ways. Mark Armstrong, professor of economics at the University of Oxford, noted in an email that we’ll shell out for things like being able to quickly consume a product wherever one wants, or clicking on a word reading to see its definition, or skipping to the place in a book where a character first appears. Furthermore, he said, digital copies don’t take up any space in a home office or university library, and perhaps more importantly, it’s the “only way to get immediate access from your sofa.” All of which is to say that we pay more for digital copies not only because they are more reliable, but also because they are more convenient.

Physical formats, on the other hand, so quickly become outdated. Richard Wilks, anthropologist and co-director of Indiana University’s Food Institute, noted in a phone interview that millennials (of course it’s the millennials) have seen their parents lug VHS tapes to Goodwill. In other words, they have seen, and are currently seeing, the technologies with which they themselves grew up become obsolete. Why pay extra for the DVD when you know your next computer probably won’t have a DVD drive?

This is true, of course, true of movies and music, but not of books. What is true of all three, however, is that the digital version is often more trusted and more convenient, and that the digital is an accepted part of the way we live now. (Consider how increasingly surprising it is to see someone proudly display DVDs and records. E-books make it harder to show off your erudite tastes, alas.)

But not everyone can afford to jump on the ownership by absence bandwagon, since not everyone has access to that version in the first place. According to the Pew Research Center, 13 percent of adult Americans do not use the internet, and 19 percent of those people said they don’t do so because it’s cost prohibitive. To Aleenah Mehta, a research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas Institute (and, in the interest of full disclosure, a friend of mine), this suggests a third driver behind this trend: People are paying more because the cost is less important than performance and participation in the new economy. That is, this trend exists because people always pay more to be part of the new cool club, and today the cool club is digital.

Whether or not it is indeed hipper to own the digital version, the reality remains that if the most accessible version of culture is 1) not accessible to everyone and 2) the least affordable, then ownership by absence becomes exclusionary. Not everyone gets to download culture.

We may be paying a premium for the convenience of digital objects—but there’s another cost beyond the extra couple of bucks you’re shelling out up-front. Mark Lemley, professor of law and director of the Program in Law, Science and Technology at Stanford Law School, said in an email, “customers get fewer rights in a digital copy than they do in a physical copy. I can loan, resell, or tear into pieces my physical book or CD. But the law won’t let me do the same thing with the digital copy I ‘buy.’ ” We’re paying more to be legally able to do less. Or, as Aaron Fellmeth has put it in Future Tense, “You bought it, but you don’t own it.”

This, qualms serious and subtle aside, is the way we pay to own now and may be for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean we’ve become any less captivated by consumption. As Wilks said, possession is fundamentally human, and while we may change the concept of what and how we possess, we’ll still be possessed by possessions.

We still own things, in other words. We may no longer show how well-read we are by displaying hardcover Primo Levi on our bookshelves. But now we can bring his work with us everywhere, without lugging around those heavy books. And we’ll even pay more to do just that.

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. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.