Paul Jarvis

Ownership is resistance

Think about how ownership worked 30 or more years ago. If you bought something, it was yours, and you could do whatever you wanted with it or to it—customize it, break it, hack it, change it.

In a single generation though, we’ve moved away from ownership. We’re now in an on-demand, gig economy where what we can truly own is constantly diminishing. Car ownership is being replaced by ride-shares or leases. Labour is being replaced by contractors without rights or health coverage. Home ownership is rapidly declining as well. Even what we used to post online, via our own servers and platforms, is being replaced by borrowing space on Facebook or Twitter.

The price to own larger items like cars and houses has been rapidly increasing at a rate far higher than inflation. This pragmatically prices most people out of outright ownership.

What we do not own, we do not have sovereignty over.

Meaning our freedoms are held hostage by those who we rent or borrow from. Even if you buy a car outright—most now come with semi-autonomous features that limit what you can do with your vehicle, in the name of safety of course. And this isn’t even necessarily a bad thing, since safety is good. But consider this: it’s only a matter of time before cars we fully and absolutely control become either illegal or too expensive to keep on the road (insured) because they’re not as “safe”.

Writer and crypto-nerd Richard Bensberg posits: “If you are paying for everything monthly…you own nothing.”

Modern technology is the worst culprit for the decline of ownership, even though the internet started in the opposite way (hosted, distributed and amplified through methods we owned). Now though, if we ask ourselves who owns our personal data online, and how it’s collected, distributed or shared, not many of us can answer “I do.”

Slack (messaging software) made the news when it decided to remove access for people in or thought to be in countries it deemed unsavoury because it wanted to comply with another country’s sanctions. So if you were ethnically Iranian but a citizen of a country like Canada or the US, your account was still instantly shut off, without warning.

In China, your right to travel can be denied if you don’t have a high enough social credit score. Lack of ownership can be deeply political. Even if you want to do something on your Apple device that Apple the company doesn’t want you to, like deleting apps it came with, you’ll be unable to. Lack of ownership means governments and huge companies can tell us what we can and can’t do.

This rumination may sound like a dystopian sci-fi novel like David Eggers’ The Circle. But this is real life and what is currently happening right now even in “free societies” – and we’re letting it because not owning is easier or cheaper or more convenient. Using someone else’s platform is apparently fine because they’ll do what’s in our best interests, right?

Even the shift from growing our own food and building/maintaining our own houses has removed a lack of ownership from our lives. Our reliance on large power companies does the same. Credit cards mean we’re ok with trading ease for the use of someone else’s platform.

The current paradigm of business is to remove ownership for supposed access, and we’re letting it happen. We’re giving up sovereignty and control for ease.

The original idea behind the internet as a completely distributed network is dying. It’s being replaced by what Harvard Business School calls “surveillance capitalism” where companies are essentially monetizing human beings (i.e. our data). Think about it: Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google, all operate huge server farms—a term that’s fairly new, with the advent of owned platforms. But, have you ever thought about what they’re “farming”? It’s us, by extension of the personal data we give them. Digital activist Aral Balkan calls them “factory farms for human beings.”

Again, this seems more of a tall tale from sci-fi than real life. But as Aral explains, the data we are storing on these platforms is us. This data is an extension of self. If we want to remember to pick something up at the store, we write it down on our phone, thereby extending ourselves through our devices and data. We’re all cyborgs in that sense. So storing, selling and owning that data by these large companies and platforms is in essence owning us and removing own sovereignty from the equation.

This is scary stuff. And it’s truly why ownership is resistance–those engaged in surveillance capitalism are strategically trying to remove what we can own on a constantly increasing basis.

Even small steps can make a difference in adding back ownership—and therefore freedom—to our lives.

Not to do an about-face here, but this issue is obviously quite nuanced. I don’t even think it’s as simplistic as saying “all platforms are bad”. We just need to consider:

There’s a passage in The Circle where the main character, Mae, paddles out in the foggy San Francisco Bay to escape the oppressive surveillance from “the platform”. In doing so, by temporarily removing herself from the platform, she attains—even for a short moment—resistance and freedom.

We simply need to consider the ramifications of trading ownership for ease. Sometimes it’s worth it, but other times, it leaves us at a supreme disadvantage with no leverage to fix.

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