Why the Future of Stuff Is Having More and Owning Less

If you’re one of the many people who’s embraced the sharing economy, you’ve probably stayed in someone else’s apartment or ridden in someone else’s car. Maybe you’ve also done away with your clutter of DVDs, books, or CDs, since you can watch movies on Netflix, read books on Kindle, and hear music on Pandora.

The concept of having more while owning less sounds paradoxical, but that’s exactly the scenario we’re finding ourselves in. Technology is enabling us to move away from ownership and towards an economy based on sharing and subscriptions. Platforms like Airbnb and Lyft or Uber connect renters and riders to landlords and drivers, and digitization means all kinds of media can be stored, streamed, or downloaded in seconds.

But where does it end? Are there things we’ll always want to own, and if so, what are they?

In a new video from Big Think, author and WIRED founding executive editor Kevin Kelly explores the limits of what he calls the subscription economy and asks, “Is this the end of owning stuff?”

Kelly points out how easy it’s become to make things like games or books intangible. These things have gone from being physical products to information on a screen.

“If we can deliver these intangibles anytime, anywhere, to anybody, that instant aspect of them means we don’t have to own them anymore,” Kelly says.

And it’s not just intangibles we don’t need to own. If you can summon a car to pick you up within minutes, why own one, especially when owning means storing, cleaning, maintaining, and insuring? Subscribing, Kelly says, gives you all the benefits of owning without any of the liabilities.

But is there a limit to what people will be willing to rent?

Ownership isn’t always just about practicality or convenience. It’s also about comfort, familiarity, and status, too—and these aren’t as easy to digitize or subscribe to.

Kelly uses clothes as an example of something else we may soon subscribe to. Your body would be scanned so you’d know the clothes would fit, then they’d get delivered to you, you’d wear them once, send them back, and they’d be cleaned and sent to the next person.

On the one hand, it would be nice not to lug a suitcase of clothes and personal items along when you travel, instead receiving whatever you need at your destination (and leaving it there when you depart).

But what about your old gym shoes that are perfect for long days of walking? Or that t-shirt you’ve washed so many times it feels like wearing a fluffy cloud? And don’t forget about the brand-name suit you saved up for months to buy, and the hat that bears your alma mater’s name—how will you tell the world who you are without these?

Not to mention, wouldn’t wearing the same clothes dozens of other people have worn be kind of, well, gross?

Similar points might be made about items like kitchenware, toys, camping equipment, or really anything that’s among the piles and stashes of “stuff” in our homes today.

We own things because it’s convenient, but also because it’s sentimental—maybe it would be nice to rent a turkey roaster once a year instead of having it take up space in your cabinet for 364 days, but it’s also nice to use the one Aunt Sue gifted you from your wedding registry.

For better or worse, ownership also serves as a status symbol. If you can afford expensive cars and luxury-brand clothing and accessories, you may want to own them even if they’re not practical or convenient.

The answer to Kelly’s question, then, is a bit more nuanced than “yes” or “no.” This is the beginning of being able to significantly reduce what we own while retaining access to more than we had before. It’s a phenomenon that will spread to new classes of things with varying speed.

How quickly we shift from owning to subscribing will be influenced by price and convenience, but the personal and cultural aspects of ownership will likely provide a counterbalance. I, for one, will always love my comfy old t-shirts and bulky paper books.

That said, preferences tend to change over time and evolve along with cultural norms. As evidenced by Airbnb’s explosive growth in a relatively short period of time, many people have readily gone from thinking of their homes as private space to using them as money-makers. Similarly, though we may not be crazy about the idea of sharing clothes right now, the next generation could be as comfortable with it as we are sleeping in other peoples’ beds.

Stock Media provided by garloon / Pond5

Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa is senior editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering, the nitty-gritty of the renewable energy transition, the roles technology and science play in geopolitics and international development, and countless other topics.
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