You'll Own Nothing and Be Happy
by Charles Hugh Smith | Of Two Minds

Maybe we should rephrase the slogan to “you’ll appear to own things you don’t actually control and be happy.”

The World Economic Forum’s catchphrase you’ll own nothing and be happy was widely mocked as an eyebrow-raising vision of a “sharing economy” future without the implicit agency granted by full ownership. Renting stuff that one needed only for one-time use has long been a market, and car-sharing makes sense for urban dwellers who only need a vehicle on occasion.

But to own nothing still implies powerlessness and poverty, not happiness, which continues to be associated with owning income streams and nice things, i.e. wealth.

Given our dependence on software / digital rights and the phantom wealth of credit-asset bubbles,”how much do we actually own?” is a fair question.Consider the recent New York Times article Why Tech Companies Are Not Your Friends: Lessons From Roku, which was reprinted in other publications with the more accurate title Our Gadgets Are Not Ours.

The gist of the article is that since we don’t own control of the software, our “ownership” of the device is illusory. Here is an excerpt:

More than a decade ago, when we bought a TV it was just that–a big screen that let you plug into it whatever you wanted. Nowadays, the vast majority of TVs connect to the internet and run the manufacturer’s operating system and apps. Even though you bought the TV, the software component, a major part of what makes the product work, remains controlled by the company.

Changes to the product’s software interface and data collection practices can happen at any moment. In extreme examples, a device can stop working. In 2020, for instance, Amazon deactivated the Echo Look, a camera that helped people organize their wardrobes. It issued a promotional credit for owners to buy a different Amazon gadget that lacked similar features.

The less extreme, more common situation is when companies stop supporting older products because they need to sell new gadgets. Apple’s original Apple Watch from 2015, for example, no longer gets software updates and now barely works.

This issue is not new but has grown more problematic as more of our devices rely on apps and internet connections, said Nathan Proctor, a director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization. With computers, consumers could modify their machines by installing a different operating system. But with many other types of electronics with locked-down software systems, from streaming devices to e-book readers, those modifications are typically not possible.

“When you get to the core of it, do you even own it anymore?” he said.

Indeed. Now think about the “ownership” of software-dependent systems such as vehicles and Smart Homes, and income streams running through software platforms such as Stripe. Payment software platforms can block your access to your money and delete whatever illusion of control you might have had by informing you that you violated their “terms of service,” which are open-ended and cannot be questioned.

One’s “ownership” of money and income streams turns out to be highly contingent.

As for vehicles, if the software fails (or is rendered inoperable), your vehicle becomes an expensive brick. So what exactly do we own if the vehicle is inoperable?

Widening the scope of our inquiry, consider our ownership of a house that is mortgaged. If the fine print doesn’t preclude the lender calling the mortgage, then should the lender (or current owner of the mortgage) call the loan, the “owner” must pony up the sum owed or the “ownership” reverts to the lender. Read Full Article >

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