digital implications,  Film,  Music

Ownership ain’t what it used to be

I recently signed up for Spotify, a music service that allows you to find, and listen to, whole tracks and albums. It's less social than LastFM, say, but more focused around the specific music you want – whereas LastFM uses the artist you like as a springboard for finding other artists, Spotify uses it just to give you that artist's music.

It brought back to me some considerations I'd had about the nature of ownership. My generation will have a distinctly different concept of ownership to that of my daughter's generation. For my generation you partly constructed your identity around what you owned – your bookshelf, record collection and DVD archive were important aspects of who you were (as anyone who has read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity will appreciate). But for the digital generation this strong link with ownership has been broken.

It took time and money to build up any of those collections. Therefore they demonstrated a commitment which was worth exhibiting. In a digital world this effort is greatly reduced, and as a result so is the emotional attachment one feels towards them. How often would people say that their book collection or record collection would be the things they would want to save from a burning house? This simply doesn't apply anymore – you can just download again (iTunes keeps a record of what you've purchased or you just download ahem, free, versions from BitTorrent).

But even more than this, the need to own anything is reduced. Imagine a service like Spotify greatly increased so you could find any artist, and with mobile devices, get access anywhere. Why do I need to own any of these tracks then? I can get them whenever I want, and isn't that the point of ownership, to have access under your control?

Obviously there are some things you still need to own (clothes, cars, phones, etc), but if so many previously coveted items move to cloud services, what will the next generation cherish? I think the answer is evident already in where they spend their time – it's in their identity. This was one of the functions of owning these items in the first place after all. For the digital generation things that cannot be easily duplicated will be important – this will be the MySpace or Facebook page they have generated over a long time, the network they have created. These represent the 'things I'd save from a fire' in an online world.

As for us? Ownership is a hard habit to break.


  • Matthew Burton McFaul

    Hey Martin, I agree with all this – but in addition to representing your identity these modern-day assets are cherished because they are also just really useful in your everyday life.
    I guess it comes down to what is irreplaceable these days – and it’s not virtual objects themselves, but the record of their locations: bookmarks, addresses, file locations, contact info.
    If you don’t know where they are, you have really lost them. ( Or at the very least you’re looking at a lot of googling to find them again )
    So, if the Facebook servers burned down, and you could google to retrieve one thing, what would it be for ?
    : )

  • Martin Weller

    Hi Matt, I couldn’t give a toss if the FB servers burned down – what I would miss most in an internet fire would be a) this blog and b) the network I have established in Twitter. The former because I would never get back all the content I have put in on here, the latter because my network has built up over 18 months or so. As you say, both of these are about identity, but also, really useful – indeed essential probably for my professional life.

  • Huw Jenkins

    Doc, Yep, it’s a virtual world alright, but i don’t see the impending cloud culture a bad thing. Yes, having a tactile history at hand is reassuring and often a reminder of who we were, are and wish we’d been – though i do see such items/possessions a little like a safety blanket – fuufy if you will – and maybe this and later generations will be liberated from the shackles of ownership. Perhaps my sons will have to affirm their identity through their actions and general character more than I. Of course this is wishful thinking – both are submerged into fake video (do we say Video now?) worlds – and don’t fully appreciate how to covet their belongings.
    i do know that i’m the owner of you though

  • Martin Weller

    Blimey, Jenkins and Burton both make it to my blog after 4 years.
    I don’t think it’s a bad thing either – but it is a fundamental change in how we relate to stuff and how we express our identity. Also a lot of businesses are still going on the ownership model (cf Zavvi) – it ain’t a horse worth betting on.
    Now get back to work.

  • Adam

    I definitely feel “ownership” of my blog, as you said in the comment above–which is why when Blogger recently (finally) added an export feature, you can bet that I immediately backed up my four years of blogging in, like, three different places!:D

  • Michael

    Interesting Sociology project:
    Is there a stronger culture of identity though ownership ( clothing, labels, sports shoes, phone brands, jewellery/bling) among cultures who fall on the wrong side of the digital divide, or are otherwise digitally disadvantaged*.
    *Heh – digitally disadvantaged. Sounds like fancy for ‘missing a finger’.

  • Eingang

    @AJCann posted this at and I made the following comment there:
    I wonder if forward-thinking archaeologists are really displeased with this trend? The reason I wonder about this is because archaeologists painstakingly construct our understanding of the past through the artifacts we’ve left behind. In an increasingly digital society built on storage technology that is not expected to survive more than 20 or 30 years, what will be left of our music, our literature, our art, and our science? What will our descendants in a thousand years be able to say about our lives?

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