Some social problems are blatantly obvious in daily life, while others are longer-term, more corrosive and perhaps mostly invisible. Lately I've been worried about a problem of the kind: the erosion of personal property and what that will mean for our loyalties to the traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.
The main culprits for the change are software and the internet. For instance, Amazon's Kindle and other methods of online reading. Fifteen years ago, people typically owned the books and magazines they were reading. Much less so now. If you look at the fine print, it turns out that you do not own the books on your Kindle. Amazon.com Inc does.
I do not think this much of a practical problem. Although Amazon could obliterate the books on my Kindle, this has happened only in a very small number of cases. Still, this licensing of e-books, instead of stacking books on the shelf, has altered our psychological sense of how we connect to what we read – it is no longer truly “ours.”
The change in our relationship with physical objects does not stop there. We used to buy DVDs or video cassettes; now viewers stream movies or TV shows with Netflix. Even the company's disc-mailing service is falling out of favor. Music lovers used to buy compact discs; now Spotify and YouTube are more commonly used to hear our favorite tunes.
The great American teenage dream used to be your own car. That is dwindling in favor of urban living, greater reliance on mass transit, cycling, walking and of course, ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.
Each of these changes is beneficial, yet I worry that Americans are, slowly but surely, losing their connection to the idea of private ownership. The nation was based on the notion of property. It is set apart from feudal peasants, educated in the form of training for future entrepreneurship. Do we not, as parents, often give our children or other valuable possessions to teach them basic lessons of life and stewardship?
are finding ownership to be so inconvenient. The notion of “possessive individualism” is sometimes mocked, but in fact it is a significant source of autonomy and initiative. Probably we are becoming more communal and caring in positive ways,
What about your iPhone, that all-essential life device? Surely you own that? Well, sort of. When Apple Inc. decides to change the operating software, sooner or later you have selected. Gmail is due to change its overall look and functionality, maybe for the better, it's Google's. The very economics of software encouraging standardization, and changes in time. I'm in the forefront of this column using Microsoft Word, and sooner or later my contract for use it will expire and I will have to renew.
Imagine the “internet of things” penetrating our homes more and more, through services like Amazon's Alexa. We'll have the ovens and thermostats that you set with your voice, and a toilet and bathroom that periodically give you the equivalent of medical check-up. Yes, you will still own the title to your physical house, but in the case of municipal utilities, the government.
As for that iPhone, it is already clear that you do not have a full legal right to repair it, and indeed more and more devices are sold to consumers without giving them. John Deere tractors are sold to the farmers with plenty of software, and farmers have to be hacked into the tractor. There is now a small but burgeoning “right to repair” political movement.
The libertarian political theorist. But the more commensensical, broad libertarian intuitions of the American public encapsulate a more brutish and direct sense that some things we simply own and hold the rights to.
Those are intuitions which are growing increasingly disconnected from reality, and no one knows what lies on the other side of this social experiment. – Bloomberg