The death of ownership should not go unchallenged

Ownership is the right to use, enjoy and dispose of property. It brings with it the power to grant consent to do things on one’s own. It is based on the principle that one has exclusive dominion over something (and maybe even the profits generated therefrom). One who owns an object can give up ownership of it or transfer it to another person. So to speak, you don’t own something if someone else’s consent is required in order for you to make use of it.

If digital media companies defined what it is their consumers are actually buying it is likely to be something like “the right to listen” or “the right to view” or “the right to watch a film.” In that sense, our modern understanding of ownership in the digital sense has come to mean licensing more than anything else. Licenses, of course, are of many types and they often impose on their holders a number of restrictions.

The reason that consumers don’t see themselves as “licensees” is partly because consumer’s expectations are based on the experiences of buying physical media, but also for the very simple reason that people do not generally buy rights or licenses. They acquire products.

Talking about users as if they are licensees when in fact they are consumers who believe (for good reason) that they own the media they purchase means that we have created a divide between actual and perceived ownership.

Ownership itself has been replaced by the extremes of licensing, where consumers rarely own any digital media, and in fact rarely even own their licenses, but merely rent through subscriptions. This is the result of services like Spotify that insist on people paying for subscriptions rather than buying products. We are facing a world where consumers own nothing, and are merely licensing content indefinitely.

Everything a consumer touches now is in the context of a licensee, and to make matters worse if they want to transfer anything digital from one machine to another, or from one service provider to another, there are often punitive restrictions.

The death of ownership has been accelerated by corporations — and the wannabe corporations that all venture backed technology companies truly are — who have recognized the endlessly repeating business model that is possible if no consumer is able to permanently purchase a product, but must instead tie themselves to endless subscription payments; a form of neo-feudalism that requires tithing to techno-corporate overlords without the option of true independence.

When an entire generation grows up believing that ownership of anything is obsolete, we become a civilization of people who increasingly lack agency. Digital, by definition, is not something you can hold in your hand; it therefore comes with all sorts of promises attached about the convenience and control that is offered, but increasingly this is becoming little more than propaganda rather than functional reality.

The death of ownership is a trend that will have long-term consequences on the way we think. If one’s relationship with digital media is characterized by licensing, then so too will be life in general. It becomes more about asking permission, and less about acting autonomously. Even household income increasingly becomes tied up in and endless cycle of payments to access basic necessities; it should therefore come as no surprise that the proliferation of subscription-based media is accompanied by a surge in “subscription-based living.”

The reality of our modern civilization is that we’re all just renters, and we pay monthly to keep the illusion of ownership alive.

Tokenized ownership and crypto-provenance is not the only solution to this problem; it may not even be the most radical. But in a purely practical sense, it’s the most accessible, and the most easily democratized solution to what is becoming a serious cultural and economic problem. While detractors claim that NFT owners own nothing, we own more than most; we own more than a monthly credit card statement demonstrating our ability to access content. We own immutable data, and we own a personal, singular history.

This is what the future of ownership looks like. This trend has consequences that will reverberate throughout society and into culture itself. Tokenization allows us to add value back to something ephemeral and intangible by converting it into non-fungible tokens that we truly own. With tokenization as a tool, we can more easily realize the cultural and economic benefits of true ownership again… where “ownership” means what it actually means (and not something else entirely).

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