Ownership in the digital age

Following my last post about the evolution of television I am going to look to tackle the wider issue of ownership in an increasingly open and digitized world, this is not going to be a long diatribe on the ownership of brands or of copyright law but is actually going to focus on our physical ownership of property and of goods for which we exchange our hard-earned cash.

The problem is this: 10 years ago if I wanted to buy an album or a single I would buy a CD, if I wanted to own a film it would be a VHS or a DVD, the point was it was a solid object, something I owned and something I identified with, something that I stored on my bookshelf with other objects of similar value which I had invested in. However, times have changed, now if I want to listen to a new track I can download it from iTunes, I still own it, but the ownership is virtual, not physical, there is no object on my shelf, no album artwork, nothing for friends or acquaintances to comment on when they visit my home. More importantly I now, increasingly don’t even need to buy CD’s, I can stream music for free from a variety of sources, so I can play the track as much as I want but with no investment of money my end (or of course I can illegally download should I so choose). The CD provides a good example but the same is becoming true of more and more of our purchases, they are becoming digitized. I increasingly use services like Virgin on Demand to purchase a film and watch it once for £3 as opposed to buying it on DVD or I buy the content from iTunes, but I physically own nothing, and with the advancement of devices like the kimble and the upcoming Apple Tablet the same fate looks set to befall books in the near future.

Alongside the digitisation of areas like books, films and music there is also a new market for purely digital goods, increasingly people are spending real money on virtual goods and services in games like Farmville and mafia wars where we use real money to purchase goods and services which hold no value outside of the game and are, in all reality, a few bits of coding and some data on a server somewhere!!

Another prime example is the photograph. My Grandma, and my mum, both have large albums of photos from my childhood and my sisters childhood, albums that sit on bookshelves to be pulled out periodically and treasured. My pictures on the other hand exist on Facebook and Flickr and so on, they exist, but only as data, not in any kind of physical form.

So what does all this mean? Well we now live in a world where our concept of physical ownership and indeed our concept of reality is changing based on the evolution of virtual goods and virtual data. I mean really: a photo of me on a screen, stored on a server farm somewhere, is still a photo of me in the same way one sitting in an album in my Mum’s house it, neither is less real. The same is true of music, a song from iTunes or Spotify is no less entertaining than one on a CD or other “hard” medium. However as our lives become more and more digital and our acceptance of digital goods and services grows then I can’t help but feel we are loosing something… If too much of our lives, thoughts and of our time is invested in goods and services that exist only in the virtual world then our commitment to those goods becomes less and less if we cannot hold the CD in our hand then we never really feel a true investment or affinity with that band, we never really buy into them. Sure we brought a track off iTunes, but we never held anything, we never owned anything, we never truly invested. This may make our choices and trends more transient, our attitude towards the virtual goods we own may become more relaxed, leading to faster churn of fads and trends and an increasing sense of disillusionment from us, the very creatures that have created this situation.

To cite an example lets re-visit photography: More and more of us now take photos everywhere, in the pub, in the shop, in any random situation when ever we feel like it, these then get uploaded on to Facebook and tagged and then replaced, last weeks album is hardly looked at, last months or last years is totally forgotten. Are we in danger of moving this way with more and more of the virtual world? In the immortal words of Gandhi: “there is more to life than increasing its speed”.


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