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]