Will Technology Make Ownership Obsolete? A Future Tense Event Recap.

Will Oremus, Susan Lund, Holly Maine, and Lauren Belive.

Brynne Morris/New America

The destinationless driver and her beloved Mustang facing the open road. The Bob Dylan fan thumbing through his prized vinyl collection. Ms. Fix-It tinkering away her basement workshop.

These are the joys—the independence, the control, the freedom, the physical connection—that have defined the American pursuit of ownership. But what happens if technology—in the form of app-based sharing companies, digital rights management, and user agreements—makes this kind of ownership obsolete?

That’s the question Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—posed to experts at a live event on Oct. 25 in Washington, D.C. It was part of the “Future of Ownership” edition of Futurography, a project in which Future Tense explores a different tech-related topic each month.

The subscription-based and shared-economy business models operate under the premise that the ownership we once romanticized is largely overrated. After all, cars cost us $9,000 a year to use and maintain and sit in garages or parking spaces most of the time. So why not get a ride—and music, movies, even clothes—on-demand instead?

Lauren Belive, the senior federal relations manager for Lyft, kicked off the conversation by describing the near-future the ridesharing company envisions. By 2025, Lyft hopes, autonomous networked fleets will have made private car ownership obsolete in urban environments. (She took care to note that human drivers will still be in high demand through the transition, and the change will come later in suburban and rural areas.) Individuals not only retain their ability to get around from place to place through on-demand services, but also get the added benefit of fewer cars parked or on the road—less congestion, less pollution, and more urban space freed from pavement and parking spots. That could transform cities, as Slate’s Henry Grabar recently explored in a Futurography piece.

These subscription and sharing-based models also give many consumers access to things they would never have been able to own, said Spotify’s senior director of sales, Holly Maine. “We are able to bring more music to more people with more diverse backgrounds, people that may not have had access to it or even known that they’d liked certain genres to more people than when it just came down to buying that CD or buying that piece of vinyl.” But that doesn’t mean she thinks that ownership is going the way of the 8-track tape. Though she’s an ambassador for a streaming service, Maine said she still puts on one of her vinyl records from time to time because she loves the way they sound.

This gets at a larger point about the changing nature of ownership: Though we may be able to access everything, people will still want to own what they care about most—that classic car in the garage or that designer gown in the closet. On the other hand, those who don’t have the same attachments to traditional ownership, particularly people growing up now, may find these post-ownership experiences to be particularly freeing—be it building a playlist to send to their crush or by stylizing a self-driving car experience with customized music, lighting, and video landscapes.

But that’s not to say this vision of the future is inevitable or entirely desirable. While there may be some freedom in shedding possessions, we can’t overlook the you-bought-it-but-you-don’t-really-own-it phenomenon. Through restrictive licensing terms (those things you never scroll through before clicking “I agree”) and digital and physical locks, more companies have started to obstruct users’ abilities to access, share, alter, and repair their purchases, as Charles Duan, the director of Public Knowledge’s Patent Reform Project, discussed. For example, Apple Music swapped out its users’ music files overnight and replaced them with streaming versions that lived in the cloud.  Macbooks now come with proprietary screws that make them difficult to open and repair. Lexmark made printers that stopped working if they detected unauthorized ink (as Duan wrote about for Futurography). And, with the Internet of Things upon us, the lines of ownership will continue to blur as software and software updates may limit consumers’ abilities to use a car, thermostat, or programmable cat-feeder—and already have.

The downsides of this trend aren’t just for individual consumers, Duan said. These sorts of blocks prevent innovation from those who find unintended uses for products (like putting food coloring in those ink cartridges so they can print on cakes, or Ikea hacks like Duan’s printing press) and from those who can point out flaws and help make products better (like third parties who find and notify companies of security vulnerabilities). It’s also an environmental threat—if devices become harder to fix, more people will give up on them, creating a big recycling and resource problem. And then there are the complicated copyright and trademark issues that 3-D printing will raise. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Chief Communication’s Officer Patrick Ross said the revolutionary technology will undoubtedly improve our lives and transform the economy, but that its rules have yet to be worked out publicly and may “make headlines” along the way.

These new models can also be much more complicated than they look at first. Do consumers know what they’re getting and what they’re giving up when they hit “I agree” on those End User Licensing agreements? Are they thinking about potential privacy concerns that may come with their networked choices? And, as journalist Monica Potts suggested, are we making “sure that people are participating in the sharing economy because it’s what they prefer”—that they’re choosing not to own things rather than not being able to afford them? Will the government step in to fill in the gaps not filled by the sharing economy by funding public transportation options or pushing for portable benefits for contract workers?

Even though the models may be changing, those in the conversation agreed that consumers and workers still hold some power to shape what ownership, or non-ownership, will look like in the future. But with a younger generation growing up in an increasingly post-ownership world, it’s unclear what desires will drive their choices, what fights they’ll pick, and what power dynamics they’ll accept.

Watch the full Future Tense event on the New America website.