What if digital possessions are free?

A guy using Internet
[image by Joselito Briones]

I’ve been thinking of what I wrote about digital possessions. Commenter Elad Kehat mentioned something about digital possessions being free, therefore ownership of possessions won’t need to be tracked.

This has ramifications. We’re not talking about information that’s in the public domain, and so is freely available to anyone with Internet access. We’re talking about that new ebook, that new song or new movie in digital format, being free. Maybe there’s a period where the creators charge for access, but it’s probably weeks, maybe months (and not years).

What if you could read that latest bestseller thriller right now on your preferred digital device, for free? What if you could listen to any song, old or new, for free? What if you could watch any movie, be it dated or newest blockbuster, without having to pay for it?

It could happen. It could work. I’m saying that society at large might have to change their views on ownership. Because there won’t be any for digital possessions.

The creators will definitely suffer, in the short term if nothing else. That’s where they make their money. But we’re already in that phase. We have self-publishers of ebooks and songs and video. A viable means of still profiting is to cut out the middle man (as much as possible). This also have the effect of focussing on the content and taking advantage of the medium, in this case, digital. As Elad mentioned in his comment, the middle man (publishing houses, record studios, Amazon) wants to

preserve the exclusive property of non-digital content as it becomes digitized

Which is nonsense. Because a child of 12 can reproduce an ebook with copy and paste faster than a publishing house can print a Dan Brown novel. There is no exclusivity. But until society accepts that for digital content and digital ownership, the middle man can still profit from the populace’s perception that ownership is important.

Chris Anderson (who wrote the book “Free”) already wrote much on this. The price of digital content tends to go to zero. I have to admit, it’s a distinct possibility.

So let’s assume that digital content is free. There won’t be the concept of digital possessions, because possessing assumes ownership. If it’s free, do you care if you own it?

If something isn’t free, and you own it, then you care, because you don’t want people to take it unjustly away from you. You want to have control over who can use it, appreciate it, look at it, listen to it, read it, have fun with it.

What if someone steals your free digital possession? Well, you could go get another copy of it. I mean, it’s free. But if it’s free for you, then it’s free for the thief as well. Then there’s no need for theft. And thus, no need for keeping track of ownership.

Recently, I watched a talk given by Merlin Mann. It’s not really related to the topic at hand (still worth watching, if a bit long), but he mentioned something. Tragedy of the commons.

Basically, that concept goes that there is a common piece of property, and if everyone used their fair share, the property can sustain them indefinitely. But if someone selfishly decides to bite off more than his fair share, he gains more. As other people see this selfish behaviour, they see no reason why they have to keep their end of the bargain. And then mayhem ensues. Everyone squeezes as much from the common property as they can. Eventually, the common property is ravaged beyond help. And everyone loses.

The Internet doesn’t seem to have this limit. You need more space for websites, blogs, PDFs, songs, videos, just get a few more servers. Buy some hard disk with more storage capacity. They go by the terabytes now. Digital content won’t run out of space, hence the “common property” won’t be limited. Just install more hard disks and you get more “common property”.

But hard disks and servers are made of physical materials. Maintaining them have a real cost and thus limit. Who’s going to pay for them? Powering them requires energy, and we have a problem, because there’s limited oil and fossil fuels, and the alternative forms of energy still need some time to be viable.

So we have a sociological barrier (ownership), an economic barrier (creators suffering), and a physical barrier (limit to physical materials). It’s an interesting problem to think about, and hopefully, solve. What do you think?

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]