Skip to Main Content

Living in the Clouds: The End of Ownership

Posted by Alex Warren on 16th September 2013

Is it just me or has the world been feeling a little less ‘real’ in recent years? Nothing seems to exist anymore. There was a time when things were tangible, and we bought them, and owned them, and kept them. Now though, owning what you pay for seems like a rather old fashioned concept.

We used to pay for CDs, now we use Spotify.  We used to watch DVDs, now we have Netflix. We used to buy software on disks and install them on our physical hard drives, now it’s all web-apps in the cloud. Even money doesn’t exist anymore. With only 3% of the UK economy existing as physical cash, the rest is just numbers on a screen.

Somehow we’ve given up on the idea of ownership; we’d rather just rent and borrow things from centralised data giants. But as the tangibility of our purchases continues to decline, it’s easy to forget that ownership is as much about symbolism as it is functional usage. We rely on consumption to make statements about ourselves and to project a desirable self-image.

So if that’s true, then why has it been so easy to cast aside hundreds of years of symbolic ownership and consumption? Most likely it’s because we don’t feel we need them anymore. Thanks to social media we’ve succeeded in finding new channels for self-expression which circumvent the traditional methods of consumerism. Where we once bought a Rolling Stones CD to show we were a fan, we now merely ‘like’ the Rolling Stones on Facebook and benefit from the same symbolic associations. In many ways this is a very good thing. We get to accept the decline of ownership and embrace the cloud, while still utilising some form of personal (if now consumption-free) projection.

On the other hand though there is a darker side to this new world of diminished ownership. It seems an unlikely coincidence that such a decline has correlated so seamlessly with the rise of online piracy. Stripped of symbolism and converted to functional bits, content feels worth less than it once did. If we can use social media to make statements and project desirable images of ourselves, it seems unlikely we would bother to spend our hard-earned cash achieving the same ends. Similarly, having spent years owning the content we pay for, the shift towards permanent rental is a difficult one for many people to face. It appears that if we don’t own what we pay for, we rarely feel it’s worth paying for at all.

With this thought in mind, there is an interesting irony to the fact that so many services are attempting to combat piracy by switching to cloud-based subscription models. Perhaps by further diminishing the concept of ownership they succeed in reinforcing the very behaviours they are attempting to discourage? Either way, as more technologies switch to the cloud, the next few years will prove vital in determining whether “getting what you pay for” is truly a thing of the past.

Alex Warren

Alex Warren is an expert in AI and marketing technologies. He has published two books, Spin Machines, and Technoutopia and is regularly quoted in PR, marketing and technology media. In his role as a Senior Account Director at Wildfire he helps tech brands build creative strategies that deliver results and cut through the marketing BS.