Digital Legacies: Ownership

Julius Wiedemann questions the changing notion of ‘ownership’ within the digital era, which has created the sharing economy, online services and non-physical commodities.

by Julius Wiedemann Published on : Aug 31, 2020

Our world-vision is always dwelling between ideological constructs and the pursuit of objective truths. For most of us it is not an easy dilemma to deal with because our biases are so related to our hopes that our inherited constructs provide abundant territory for inner conflict. And as a result, breakthroughs and revelations are more often than not counter-intuitive. To own the very propositions that make us more evolved people, in all aspects, demand a constant battle to understand what principles and value mean.

The idea that we create wealth, and the democratisation of its viability to the masses has had an immense impact on the idea that owning things are at the epicentre of our social evolution. Land, houses, cars, books, computers, records, silver, jewellery, etc. Accumulating ownership became part of who we were, and many times a mirror of ourselves. The difference between the world of physical ownership and the one of non-material value are in constant clash. Our capacity to quantify and measure has laid the basis for understanding wealth creation. And yet, we are moving abruptly into the intangible value world. There are now laws being passed to acknowledge that.

With ‘gig culture’ one can make a living with the use of many ‘apps’ | Digital Legacies: Ownership by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
With ‘gig culture’ one can make a living with the use of many ‘apps’ Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

The renting business has been there for a long period and is of course part of the idea that you do not need to own everything. But the traditional renting business is predicated on a couple of basic ideas that had to do either with convenience (e.g. a car at the airport), the cost (e.g. summer holiday home), or with the rarity of the occasion (e.g. a black tie). The digital era created a further development. It is the cost-benefit of using a much larger asset, with much more flexibility, on demand, and empowered by digital tools to allow for frictionless processes. The difference is enormous.

Digital revolutions such as that by Uber have changed the way we live | Digital Legacies: Ownership by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Digital revolutions such as that by Uber have changed the way we live Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

When digital technologies invaded the offices, and later the homes of the world, software, which became the prime interface for virtually anything we do, was still delivered in physical discs. Even though its premise is non-material, to say bits and bytes, the only proof you had of owning a software for instance was a hard copy of a medium. The floppy disk was invented in 1967 by Alan Shugart at IBM. There was a gap of 20 years between the first popular music CD produced, The Visitors (1981) by ABBA, and the launch of the first iPod in 2001, for us to understand that music was indeed digital. Also, we needed almost two decades to realise that what we had in our hands was immaterial, until the launch of Napster in 1999. The internet accelerated the idea of the non-physical. Beyond making it operational, with a device like an iPod, it also made it conceptually palatable. Many products could be turn into services. Much of our properties could be shared, as much as many of our needs could be acquired without ownership. Accessibility won over possession. We take Spotify and Netflix for granted now, and might soon take the usage of cars for granted too.

The development of GPS has resulted in the creation of many digitally-based companies | Digital Legacies: Ownership by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
The development of GPS has resulted in the creation of many digitally-based companies Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Sparks of creativity exist in that sweet spot between guarantees and stimulation, to say between laziness and desperation, maybe. We might never really understand if creativity is more of a social construct, or rather an ideological one, or if even it is an inherent part that some brains came more blessed than others, genetically. But the change of habits in the scale for us to adopt Uber, AirBnB, Rappi, Bird, Audible, ShareNow, and others here mentioned present a change of idea of how we live, and what we need to possess. Services like AirBnB or Audible could have been created much before, as much as many others, but they were not. They became successful now because our necessity to own has diminished. Digital tools certainly help. Surely GPS location on mobile phones and easy payment processes make the operation of these companies much easier. But more than that, the digital mindset induces the creation (and anxieties, many times) of new possibilities. The rate of gamers in millennials is 50 per cent against 16 per cent in boomers, according to Goldman Sachs. Millennials have also more debt and less money to spend. Marriage and home ownership are the lowest priorities for decades. All according to the same research. They are all digital natives, and have pushed the trends for a new mindset.

Co-working spaces have diminished the need to own office space | Digital Legacies: Ownership by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Co-working spaces have diminished the need to own office space Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

I would claim that the idea of no-ownership, or co-ownership has increased dramatically because the digital forces have shifted more than paradigms. It changed our way to look at how assets could be shared and in what scale. Every waste is an opportunity. Many of these services could have been created before. It must not be a coincidence that this younger generation is the one that uses more digital and lowers the risk of bigger investments. The transformation of the idea ownership is generating an ever-growing type of consumption. Beyond the subscriptions, there is freemium, co-working spaces, access to data and people, and new dynamics for having access to things, places, and services in unprecedented scale. Many workers do not own a desk anymore, and Selina has created a hotel for nomads to share both living and working experiences, without owning a place. Experiencing became more important than owning. From couch surfing to sharing a coffee at a co-working space, it is all up for grabs. Principles and values have now shifted too, and have to do with experiencing things, rather than owning. 

Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.

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