Are We Really Only Renting When We Buy?

While my three-year-old son has a huge stash of nearly brand new toys and books, occasionally he plays with a Hot Wheels toy car that I once pushed around as a small child. Other times, he may read a book that belonged to my wife when she was growing up. Both the car and book represent not only ownership, but a real material ability to pass on the product regardless of any system it may find itself situated. But what of a digital version of Cat in the Hat? Or perhaps an Amazon-purchased streaming version of a movie instead of the DVD?

A recent article in The Atlantic highlights the ephemeral nature of the media that we buy. Check that, media that we think that we buy, but in fact actually rent, so the argument in this piece goes. Various experts chime in to tell us that we are fooling ourselves with our “purchases.” Indeed, we are not buying a book or movie when they are in digital format, but rather renting them for the long term. It’s not clear what Amazon, iTunes, or other services will look like in ten years, but it’s more than certain that in 100 years these businesses will be in radically different forms, and, with that, whatever we have now (e.g. the Kindle, Kindle APP, our ePubs) will no longer exist in any recognizable form. While it could be argued that video tapes, records, and CDs are all materially owned media that have been and are just as susceptible to obsolescence, these are physical items still owned and presumably still able to be used If desired. Record players are available. It’s still possible to find a VHS player, and cars do still in many cases come with CD drives in their music systems as a standard feature.

The question is this: do we really own anything anymore, or just the right to use it for a while? Moreover, is something lost with this? To some degree, it’s the dilemma found in buying Kindle books that cannot be shared, sold, or handed down. That was bad enough; now we have to ponder the fact that the Kindle app will likely go the way of the dinosaur, and our digital library books may be at risk. For those of us who favor books—the kinds made of paper and that collect a little dust, perhaps the constant chaos in the electronic realm is good news; job security for real books, so to speak.

Just as the video games I played as a child have long ago found their way to a landfill, the current wave of entertainment and media is just as, or perhaps more so, disposable. Unlike a well-maintained library of physical books that may see another generation of readers pick through its shelves.

Greg Pece


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