Beyond ownership

Tristan Louis asks, Is ownershp passe? Or, from his first paragraph, “…our ownership society seems to be started a slide towards a new mode of being: a rental society.” He uses the examples of Netflix, Apple, Kindle and build vs. buy vs. rent choices at the enterprise level, and suggests, “The change in our relationship to media forces us to reassess the value of the physical good.” Except for books, most media are either disposable or self-disposing.

Good points. Got me thinking…

The concept of ownership is embedded in human nature, for the simple reason that we are grabby animals. Our hands are built for grasping. Most languages have a possessive case. “Mine!” (in whatever language) is one of the first words a toddler learns. Possession is 9/10ths of the three-year-old — especially if you try to take something away from the kid.

Yet all possession is temporary, because life is temporary, and our conditions are temporary. Even the things we love change. The physical appeal of our mates changes. Our little sweet babies grow into big hairy adults.

Could it be that the evanescent nature of the Net is in greater alignment with the temporal nature of life than the physical world we also inhabit? Think about it. Do you really “own” your domain name? Or do you rent it? Do you really own your data, or any of the identities you use? You may be able to hide your data, or encrypt it so only you and trusted others can make sense of it. But how valuable is your data in a world that operates as one big copy machine? The words I write here are not mine alone. They are available to everybody with a Net connection. If they repeat what I’ve written, does that make my words theirs? Or is there something in the nature of words that is also beyond the scope of possession — even given that possession as a quality can have great value? (If, however, a temporary one.)

The older I get the less I wish to hold on to anything, other than what is truly worthwhile to hold. (If “holding” is even what I’m doing.) What matters most, it seems to me, is neither possession nor control, but responsibility. There are things only I can, and must, do. I have an unknown budget of time to do it in. Time is something we can only spend, even when we talk about “saving” it. We are born with an unknown sum of it, and we spend it at a uniform rate until it’s gone. We just don’t know what that rate is. We do know we have 100% of what remains.

Today, here on the Net, we have a new world of our own making that is very different than the one our inner three-year-olds know too well. The concept of possession inside a system that works by copying is an odd one to apply. The concept of distance-free connecting is another. At a functional level the Net puts us all at approximately zero distance from everybody else. More than a World of Ends, the Net is a World of Beginnings. Every word we say, every key we stroke, every gesture we commit, is the beginning of something — even as we do those things at the ends of a network comprised of countless other ends.

My grandfather, George W. Searls,  was a carpenter in Fort Lee, New Jersey in the early days of silent movies, when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood. (Lon Chaney was a good friend of his, and lived for awhile in one of the family’s upstairs apartments.) Among other things, Grandpa built movie sets. Here is a picture of one. It appears to be a ballroom with a stage at one end. This is how they did movies back then: on stages. They shot there because theater was what they knew. They did theater on film.

I think we’re still at that stage (no pun intended) with the Internet. We’re doing old media stuff in this new place that’s not really a medium at all. It’s a strange new disembodied environment that doesn’t make full sense to our embodied selves, because bodies aren’t there. I think the Net will only make sense, eventually, to our disembodied selves. These are the selves that require bodies but are not reducible to them. Possession gives us something to do with our bodies. But not with our souls.

The work of life is doing, not having. Even if having is what you’re doing, it’s the doing that matters. Life is process, not product. That process is one of contribution, I think. We want to leave the world with more than it had when we entered it. And with goods that are beyond measure or price. Goods which, like time, we can only give.

With the Net we have invented an excellent place to do that.

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  1. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Doc, I think this is one of your deepest and most insightful pieces, thanks for pulling it all together.

    I find that the net is a great too, as you say… but the problem is that on a personal level I’m still getting my bearings too. Blogging is great for getting interested, but out at my end of the long tail, its really hard to feel like your voice matters at all. (Mostly due to the lack of any signal or noise when you only get a few hits/day)

    I’ve realized myself that it’s important for me to keep ego out of things, and take a more detached view when trying to decide whats truly important to spend the remaining time I have on.

    I think we’re in sync on that.

    Good luck with the book.

  2. yungchin’s avatar

    I’m not sure if I feel that anything is fundamentally changing with regards to ownership. Maybe the properties of the net are just highlighting our long-standing misunderstanding of “intellectual property”: back when people bought books and DVDs, did they really own the content on those in the sense of physical ownership? Maybe nothing changed?

    I guess I’m really just asking, as I’m not a scholar of the law or anything close to that. To a layman like me, Stallman’s simple reasoning always seemed very compelling – if I’m taking your words, that doesn’t take them away from you (in contrast to my taking your car from you), which would suggest that we should better not think in terms of ownership at all.

    (In that sense, my domain name is yet a different kind of beast than a netflix rental, I guess?)

  3. Francine hardaway’s avatar

    Doc, you have become a Buddhist. Practicing non-attachment is the best way to avoid suffering. I work toward this. On the other hand, I also grew up in NYC and my father’s view of a house was “a deep well into which to throw your money.” We rented, moved freely when circumstances changed, and didn’t suffer. Not until I got to Phoenix, the real estate capital of the world, did I realize that other people actually attached status to “owning” a home.

    Oh, and by the way Native Americans also don’t believe in ownership, only in stewardship,

  4. ben’s avatar

    Thanks Doc – your piece moved me to comment on a blog – sorry i don’t have any more to give than that – though i am very happy to say that i do give people good bread to eat 🙂

  5. Tristan Louis’s avatar


    First of all, thanks for the link. As I read through your piece, I couldn’t help but think about a quote I heard recently in the context of spreading ideas. It’s from Jefferson but still very much applicable today: “he who lights his candle at mine receives light without darkening me.”

    To wit, Jefferson thought about creating a marketplace of exchange of ideas in a time far far removed from the Internet and many of the early proponents of the internet had similar desires. While there is a tremendous cacophony around the internet, I do suspect that all the knowledge that is poured in represents those goods we can only give.

    There are, however, a few fundamentals which cause me to not share your optimism as to the next stage. Our willingness to let go of control may also be tied to the willingness of corporations to provide us with spaces where they take over that control. At the current time, it is mostly a beneficial relationship but I sometimes wonder if some dastardly and darker corners of corporations might make this more nefarious. I have not made up my mind on that phenomenon yet as the evidence of such behavior seems to still be largely counteracted by the corporate self-interest in participation and preservation.

  6. Todd Carpenter’s avatar

    Great piece, Doc!

    This is a topic I’ve thought a lot about recently. There are many ramifications to this change in ownership versus renting, particularly content.

    Libraries (and musuems) had for a long time been cultural memory institutions. However, as they increasingly are purchasing online digital versions of content, who will be preserving this information into the future? Publishers should be doing more in this regard, but they’re not. Increasingly this is true of all media that is no longer in any analog format.

    No one much worried about the preservation of printed texts, because writing on paper (if well stored) can last hundreds or thousands of years. Digital information can disappear in the blink of an eye, or more likely become obsolete because of media or technology changes. While publishing-driven initiatives like Portico or LOCKSS address this question for some content, they are only limited to the content participating in those programs. There is a wide swath of digital information we are apt to lose, such as blogs, Facebook pages, twitter streams, online notebooks, or non-printed research reports that don’t end up in repositories that will likely go dark in future decades. Much of the current research on historical figures relies on their notes, letters and diaries to round out the story of their lives and activities. Today much of that is now online and prone to loss. Not to over-emphasize their present importance, but someone 100 years from now might want to know what the next generation’s President Obama wrote during law school on her Facebook pages.

    Or perhaps, someone might want to study you and your ideas. Hopefully, they’ll have access to them when Harvard takes your blog down from their servers.

    Hope you are all well and can’t wait to see you next month.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Tristan. Here is what I wrote about Jefferson (and others) in 1995: . It’s held up well.

    I’m also concerned about corporate silos, including the ones we call “clouds.” My hope is that they’ll prove less useful in the long run than the open alternatives. But, we’ll see.

  8. Erik Cecil’s avatar

    Doc, perfect. Tweeted it to some law students I’d worked with who are working on DMCA exemptions before Copyright Office today. #DMCA1201.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Erik, check what I wrote here: “We can do that by taking the “willing seller/willing buyer” concept out of the abstact and making it concrete. That concept was laid out in 17 U.S.C. 112(e)(4), which says “The Copyright Royalty Judges shall establish rates that most clearly represent the fees that would have been negotiated in the marketplace between a willing buyer and a willing seller.” Apparently nobody involved in any of these lawmaking and regulatory proceedings has imagined a marketplace where listeners can be customers, equipped not only to express demand but to pay for the goods.”

  10. Pauly’s avatar

    I not only love this post from the standpoint of what it means to be an individual participant in this new (and agreed, still emerging) mediasphere, but perhaps even more for what it might imply about the future of the “marketplace” it envelopes.

  11. Erik Cecil’s avatar

    Doc, great points. And, of course, regulators aren’t made regulators because of their imaginative, disruptive creative natures. Folk of those ilk go out at litigate and/or consult. 😉

    More deeply and unavoidably, we need to look at the entire ecosystem through the expanded lens of VRM. I purchase my government with votes, taxes, fees, and behaviors. Way too much of that is way too opaque and not at all accessible. There is not an aspect of human behavior that is not regulated. Government is only slightly less ubiquitous than the Internet, but that does not mean it is to be hated or destroyed, but rather remade. So far we’ve had half duplex government. It changes radically when we go to full duplex.

    We are in the midst of that transition now. Willing buyer and willing seller will happen, but the terms we use and conventions of exchange will not be recognized for some time. Like all good revolutions, this one will go unnoticed for a long time before it materializes in the consciousness of people. Government as social media is the beginning as is contract as social media (and social media as contract).

    This also points to the beauty of the Internet: enabling ceaseless change the traditions, rituals and mores of old code are swept away. Left in high relief are the ancient principles that got us here. This is sort of like common law, but in this world everyone is judge, everything is precedent, and all are parties. Where VRM will play the most important role is writing the code of the code that stitches all of it together: IP for law (noting again, that the IP is not the skinny waist, but the nanotubes we play with; waists only happen when markets don’t work, but that doesn’t make the nanotubes not nanotubes; it makes their control something to be dealt with).

  12. Raj Boora’s avatar

    I saw the original article as well. My in light of what is going on with regards to copyright, the idea that we can’t hold on to anything lends weight only to the strong handed (nee corporate) IP holders.

    Corporate will say that you can only ever rent content, artists will say that art is only temporary. Ironically, both are saying the same thing. Both will go on to rework material. Both can do it for profit. Unfortunately, one wants to wipe out all competition and believe that all ideas are their own, while the other wants to see what others have done and take inspiration. One of these two are certainly more concerned with doing, the other with having.

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