When possessions change from atoms to bits

I’m not a minimalist. I’m not crazy about having tons of stuff around me either.

Sky and shoes

I have 3 pairs of shoes. Ok, 4 because of that sports/running shoes but its front part of the sole has flopped away, so I can’t walk properly in it, and the super glue didn’t work that well, and I’m too lazy to bring it to the cobbler to fix it. I have maybe 20 shirts (T-shirts, polos, button shirts and so on), and maybe half a dozen pants and jeans. Small trinkets and stuff that can probably fit into a small box. Dozens of CDs (yeah, I still have those silver plated discs…) and DVDs. And tons of books. Books are about the only thing that pains me if I have to throw them away. Even if they’re textbooks. Ok, maybe throwing away textbooks aren’t that painful…

But I’m seeing a trend. Possessions that can be digitised are increasingly available in digitised format (I know, it sounds obvious). Particularly CDs, DVDs and books. Why? Because computers and the Internet in general support the 3 main forms of media: text, audio and video. Their “physical” equivalents are books, songs and movies.

With no other variables to consider, this is good for the environment. Books are transformed into digital text. No paper, dyes and other materials used in producing books. CDs and DVDs are transformed into digitised audio and video. Materials used in production of CDs and DVDs are saved.

But there’s a problem.

How do you know who owns what? How can ownership of digital possessions be enforced? Who’s going to enforce it?

Right now, there’s Amazon’s Kindle. You buy digital books from Amazon and the information is kept by Amazon. Amazon knows what books you bought, so that’s enforced by them.

But you can’t pass the books around. You can’t let your friend borrow that business book. You can’t let your child inherit that fantasy story that kept your imagination alive when you were young. You can’t even hand a digital book to a complete stranger just because you want to. The books are yours, but not really yours.

The equivalent for an enforcer of songs possession is iTunes Store. If I understand it correctly, you buy a song, and it’s flagged as bought by you. The song is “owned” by you, but really, you have to access it through iTunes Store. I wouldn’t know, because Singapore hasn’t had the privilege of being noticed by the company in Cupertino that has a name that sounds like the object that fell on Newton’s head which led to the discovery of gravity.

The point is, our possessions used to be kept track by us. As in, yup that book is mine. No, I don’t think that bag is mine. Oh I don’t have a car, so that’s not mine. Yes that’s my computer. See those “VB sucks!” stickers at the side? (I apologise to fans of Visual Basic. I’m just trying to make a point. And no, I don’t have those stickers around my computer.)

When possessions get digitised, the tracking of ownership flits from us, to them. Whoever “them” are, the “them” who control the medium of the possession (or some form of control over the medium).

We’ve already hit this problem with our online identities. User IDs and passwords are the solution with some kind of protection. Then there are too many user IDs and passwords to keep track of. Thus the major players start to tout their logins to be the one ring that rules them all. Facebook in particular is a popular default login mechanism for other online services. But it’s proprietary. And there’s the open equivalent OpenID.

After the protection of online identities, I foresee the need to (seriously) protect our online possessions. What happens to someone when all his books, songs and movies are stored in (hypothetically speaking) one online service? When the digital bits display “No record of John Doe”, where does that place John?

I’m not saying possession digitising is bad. I’m saying who can you trust to keep track of your digital possessions for you? A privately owned company? A public company? The government?

Will an open-sourced, crowd-sourced solution work? Will you trust everyone else to help keep track of your possessions? Can you trust everyone else in the first place? I have some doubts about the wisdom of crowds

I don’t propose to have an answer. But it is a hard problem.

Not all possessions will be digitised, nor can they be. I prefer wearing my shoes. Having my shoes in the computer doesn’t work. Unless I’m entirely digitised… but that’s a different story…

[image by Nicolas Loran]

  1. Elad Kehat

    The reason for the current trend of digital possessions that aren’t really owned by you, but rather tracked by “them”, is a lame attempt by “them” to preserve the exclusive property of non-digital content as it becomes digitized.
    In other words, a digital book being just a file, you’d copy and send it to a friend rather than hand them the original copy. That spells doom to the industry’s current way of doing business, and hence the brilliant idea of not really letting you own your possessions, but rather simply letting you access them – on the real owner’s terms.
    Nevertheless, this whole system being a legal fiction (laws, lawyers and enforcement are required to preserve it, rather than some inherent property of the digital possessions themselves), a far more likely future imho is digital content becoming completely free – at which point there’s no need to track.

  2. Vincent

    Hi Elad, I’ve actually thought about digital possessions being free. As you said, if they’re free, there’s no need to track.

    I imagine the society at large needs to change their views on digital ownership before this can happen. A physical book can have sentimental value. The digital book equivalent only has content. But a person might not be able to separate the emotional ties so easily. There are intangible values to a tangible object. And I guess, that’s what the “them” are banking on.

  3. Elad Kehat

    I agree wholeheartedly that there’s a sentimental value attached to physical books. I love how they look on my bookshelf. However, since I’ve been reading mostly ebooks for the past 3 years or so, I find myself playing with my virtual bookshelf on shelfari (http://www.shelfari.com/elad/shelf) far more often.
    What I’m trying to say is that you can have your cake and eat it – keep a record of the digital content you consumed, for sentiment, community etc., but still own that record (shelfari lets me export the data so I can move to librarything, build my own shelf app or whatever).

    As for society needing to change its views, books are a bad example because they do tend to pack emotional value – much more so than other forms of digital content like music, movies, video games. That more people get these forms of digital media from bittorrent than from digital stores.
    I believe that the need to feel of ownership gets satisfied here by sharing what you listen to (like on blip.fm) or even by hanging a Star Wars poster on the wall – like I did 😉

  4. Vincent

    Ok, books are a bad example. They come in different shapes, texture and sizes. They are easily made unique when emotional ties are brought in. That said, I like the feeling of flipping pages when I read. Which explains why I’m not so into ebook reading.

    And yes, the sense of ownership will have to change. You feel like you own that digital content when other people believe it. You share a song, people like it, people think you’re great for sharing it, and so you, like, “own” the song. Even though you really own the song because you bought it. When the tangible becomes intangible, you need something else to fill it. Sort of. Am I making sense?

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