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Technology has ended ownership but can now reinvent it

Technology sector updates

Of the many ideas to spring from Benjamin Franklin’s astonishing mind, one is strangely resonant today: the creation of the world’s first lending library in Philadelphia in 1731. Fed up with the cost of importing books from Europe, Franklin, and some fellow intellectuals, established a shared resource with the contribution of each creating the capital of all. The library’s ambition was reflected in its seal: “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.”

It has now become commonplace to argue that the digital economy is eating the physical world, turning hardware products into software services and ending ownership, as we have understood it for centuries. Instead of buying physical books, we download them on our Kindles. Instead of owning a car, we summon up an Uber. Instead of buying DVDs or CDs, we stream films and music on Netflix or Spotify. Yet in varied and messy ways, regulators, creators and consumers are resisting the dominance of the tech platforms, seeking to reassert the benefits of ownership. In some cases, they are also reanimating Franklin’s ambition to strengthen the common good — and even reimagining the functions of libraries.

There is no doubt that the tech platform companies deliver extraordinarily convenient and accessible services that have become indispensable for many during the pandemic. But the nature of these digital transactions is hugely lopsided in favour of the platforms and against users, turning owners into licensees, as Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz explore in their book, The End of Ownership. This trend has also eroded users’ privacy, agency and ability to innovate, they argue. 

Smartphones, connected cars, televisions and many household appliances run on software and depend on networks, which control the goods we buy. In most cases, we are only granted temporary and conditional access to them, under impenetrable licence agreements, and prevented from lending, reselling, modifying or even repairing the things we think we own. 

In 2017 it took an actor almost nine hours to read out Kindle’s 73,198-word terms and conditions, about 10 times longer than the US Constitution. A few years earlier, Amazon remotely deleted some customers’ copies of George Orwell’s novel 1984 on the Kindle ebook store following a dispute with a publisher, thereby turning the author’s fictional imaginings into reality.

Under pressure from the environmental movement, regulators in the US, EU and UK have recently been passing legislation enforcing the right to repair and resisting the “planned obsolescence” built into many software-enabled electronic products. Private lawsuits in the US have also sought to challenge the fiction of “Buy Now” digital goods that deliver none of the rights of ownership. The emergence of the non-fungible token (NFT) market, which has enabled creators to establish ownership of digital assets using blockchain technology, is also rewriting the narrative. “NFTs are responding to a real and unmet demand for digital ownership,” Perzanowski says. But he adds that “the NFT craze is deeply irrational” on the side of the consumers, if not sellers, and has big environmental costs given the energy-consumption of blockchain technology.

One of the other intriguing, if still nascent, attempts to reinvent ownership is the global Library of Things movement. Driven by an environmental imperative to reduce consumption and waste, these libraries collectively own and lend commonly used goods for a fee. In some respects, these organisations hark back to the tool libraries used by manual workers in the early 20th century but now exploit the efficiency of modern technology platforms.

For example, the London-based Library of Things was founded in 2014 and is structured as a purpose-before-profit company. It lends “useful and joyful” items, ranging from carpet cleaners (for £20 a day), to power drills, to sewing machines and ukuleles, and runs workshops alongside its kiosks explaining how the items are best used. “It is a platform approach in terms of the technology but a partnership approach in terms of how we are operating in neighbourhoods,” says Emma Shaw, co-founder of the Library of Things, which runs five centres in London. 

The challenge of such sharing economy business models, which espouse the concept of stewardship, rather than ownership, of goods is to scale quickly enough to make a significant impact. Yet it seems a good bet that somewhere in the intersection between environmental need, collective ownership and platform technology, some exciting innovations are about to bloom. 

john.thornhill@ft.com