Big Tech is Destroying Ownership

Do you own the music that you listen to? If you collect vinyl records or just happen to still have CDs laying around, then you do. But the majority of us in 2023 rely on subscription services like Spotify or Apple Music to borrow the music we enjoy. What about the movies you watch? Well, thanks to the access we have to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, very few of us feel the need to own DVD or VHS tapes anymore and have instead become borrowers of the movies we watch as well.

You might think these are just subscription models, but what about the games you buy from Steam, the PlayStation store or the Xbox Store, do you own those games? Or do you just own access to those games? If you own it, shouldn’t you be able to resell, lease, or even borrow it to someone else? These are just a few examples of how big tech has created a business model that has almost entirely erased personal ownership. And entertainment is just the beginning. 

In 2016, a member of the Global Future Councils wrote this “Welcome to 2030: I own Nothing, Have No Privacy, and Life Has Never Been Better.” This satirical article talks about something called the “sharing economy” and how society is moving towards the point where only a few people own everything, and the rest of us simply borrow to live. 

In it, Ida Auken proposes that as digitalization and subscription services continue to grow, people will own fewer personal possessions and instead become more accustomed to renting from and sharing with others. Essentially trading in ownership for convenience. “In the future people will rent my living room for meetings while I go to work,” she writes.

The invention of rideshare services like Uber, Lyft and Zipcar have made it easier than ever to not own a car. As a result, it's becoming increasingly more common for people to rely on the flexibility and convenience of these services rather than taking on the responsibility of becoming a vehicle owner themselves. For those who do go ahead to purchase their own vehicle, we’ve started to see car companies turn features that are supposed to come with the vehicle into subscription services. 

BMW recently received a lot of backlash when they quietly announced that they will be blocking off features such as heated seats, heated steering wheels, automatic high-beams, and adaptive cruise control. Charging car owners a monthly fee to access features that should come with the car. Microtransactions like these are greedy and exploitative and keep the consumers tied to the companies, even after a supposed transfer of ownership of a property. If I own the car, why do I still have to pay for some of its features? Features that should ideally come included with my purchase. 

Sadly, this is just the beginning of a slippery slope that will only continue to chip away at the value of ownership. Some of you may be surprised to hear that we own less things now than we did decades ago. I know it sounds contradictory when news articles, TV shows, and Youtube videos tell us that we are at the pinnacle of a consumerism crisis. However, there has been some emerging research which suggests that actually, the peak of consumerism may have already passed. The Office of National Statistics ran a test in 2013 which showed that the average adult in the U.S owned 10.3 tonnes of personal possessions, a number which had dropped pretty significantly compared to the average 15.1 that was measured in 2001. 


But what exactly is so dangerous about living in a world that is slowly moving away from personal ownership and towards a sharing economy? Being an owner of a possession, whether it be something as large as a piece of property or as small as a DVD, provides us with a sense of personal and financial autonomy. Purchasing a home, for instance, is an investment. Meaning that the money you pay towards the down payment and the mortgage of that home has the potential to come back to you in the future if you decide you want to sell the property. 


Even if you own a home that you have no intention of selling, the fact that it's yours still provides you with a personal sense of freedom, security, and sovereignty. Just knowing that if you run into any financial emergency you can sell your house to solve that crisis gives you peace of mind. This example is most obvious when we talk about buying a home but it extends all the way down to the ownership of every single material possession. The beauty of owning something whether it’s a property or a stainless steel pan is that you can trade or sell it to recoup the money that it’s worth. Looking back at the pieces of media we talked about in the beginning– when you bought a Vinyl record, you could share it with a friend, or sell it after you’re done listening to it. 


Today, you can’t even listen to your music without using a specific company’s app or buy a game from the PlayStation store and sell it to your friend once you’re done playing. Right now it might seem like trivial things, but imagine the world Ida Auken paints in her article, where the average person doesn’t even own their own everyday household appliances because of how easy and accessible it is to rent and share them. If that futuristic world were to become our reality, wouldn’t we all be a lot less in control of ourselves and the environment we live in? 


Wouldn’t we all simply just be floating through life, renting and borrowing things to get by? It’s a scary thing to think about. Another concern that comes with the sharing economy, subscription services, and digitalization is the loss of personal privacy. Think about it, streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify have all of your data. To use these platforms, you have to grant them the permission to learn everything about you from your favorite kind of music, to the movies you watch in the middle of the night when you’re alone. 


Most of us are aware of these algorithms but hardly ever consider them to be a compromise to our privacy because they’re used in a way that helps make our experience on the platforms more enjoyable. But that’s not all the data is used for. Our information is constantly being sold to advertising companies to handcraft and deliver targeted ads to us, causing us to spend money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need. Furthermore, because you have provided these services with your name, phone number, email, home address, and credit card number, they have an enormous amount of access to your personal and financial information. 


With all that data being stored and tracked, it’s no wonder that digital hacking is at an all time high right now. The cost of being hacked rose nearly 15% in 2020—the highest year-over-year increase in IBM’s dataset history. This increase was partly due to hackers and cyber-gangs capitalizing on the chaos of the pandemic. But part of the reason why they were so successful was also due to how much personal data is readily available on the internet and how much of our personal information we give out to these big tech companies.


At some point, we need to ask ourselves, should we really be paying for comfort and ease of use with our privacy? The biggest defense for subscription models is that they help us save on costs. Where you would have had to pay around $10 for one album, for the same price every month, you can have almost every song in existence. And yes, we cannot deny the fact that subscription models give us access to way more things at a reduced cost. But the reality, as with most things, is not that straightforward. 


Because these subscriptions are automatic, over time, costs can sneakily add up without the consumer being fully aware of how much they’re actually spending. Let’s use Netflix as our example. When you first sign up for Netflix you’re mystified by the possibility of having unlimited access to approximately 50,000 shows and movies for only $14.99 a month– a fee that adds up to $179 a year. However in reality, no matter how intriguing the idea of having so many options seems, no singular person will likely ever have the time or the ability to watch all 50,000 of those movies and shows. 


Let’s say, instead, during that first year of being a Netflix subscriber, you end up watching 50 movies and shows. Although many would argue that paying $179 to enjoy 50 pieces of entertainment is still a great deal, as the cost of buying the physical copies of those 50 movies would have been far greater, there’s still an underlying flaw in that equation. If you owned physical copies of those 50 movies or shows, for the one time fees you paid to buy them, you would have unlimited access to them for the rest of your life. Whereas within the confines of the subscription model, the second you stop paying the recurring monthly fee, your access is cut off completely. 


So in reality, the cost is not $179 a year, but $179 a year for the rest of your life, including every single price increase. Because again, you’re locked into that one company if they’re the only ones who have the movie or show you want to enjoy. There are also several situations where a person has the desire to just watch one specific show or movie. But the only way they can do so is to sign up for an entire streaming service. Meaning that they’ll pay roughly the same price to borrow that piece of entertainment as they could have to just own it outright and have unlimited access to it forever. And that is if they manage to sign up for and then cancel that subscription within the first month of their membership. 


It’s been statistically proven that people chronically underestimate how much they are paying for streaming and subscription services. A survey commissioned by market research firm C+R Research illuminated that 54% of people underestimated the amount they spend monthly on subscriptions by at least $100 and 24% underestimated it by over $200. On average, consumers spend $133 a month and about $1,600 a year– more than they estimated that they did on streaming services. All of this goes to show that subscription fees can become a slippery slope for people as they recur passively which allows them to easily fly under a customer’s radar and build up over time. 


This problem of ownership is not only caused by subscription services, the rise of digital assets as opposed to physical ones are also reducing what it means to own something. The best example of this is software. When you buy software, what you’re buying is digital access to it. This is why you can “buy” something, but you still do not have the right to resell or even lend it to someone else. The danger with this is that we leave all the control in the hands of the companies. If you buy something and you decide it wasn’t right for you, your only option is to hold out hope that the company you got it from has a return policy. 


If not, you’ll be stuck with something that you cannot get rid off, and money that you cannot regain. Furthermore, streaming services and online websites that sell pieces of intellectual property such as movies or video games to consumers, always have the option to discontinue their ownership of that property, thus making the consumer’s ownership of it obsolete as well. Imagine paying Netflix’s subscription for years just to rewatch your favorite comfort show, and then one day they just announce that they’ll be removing it from the platform and you can do nothing about it. 


For most of us, this isn’t something we have to imagine. It’s something that has happened time and again. And this is the final and most painful thing about the digitization of everything. If these things only exist in digital form, when licenses expire or these companies simply don’t see the need to host the content on their platforms anymore, they’ll be gone forever, lost forever. If Big Tech completely destroys ownership and all we have is borrowed, and all we own is digital, what would be in the museums of the future?