Age of Access I

We live in the beginning of the post-ownership age. I write ‘we’ because if you are reading this through the medium of the internet, most likely on a smartphone, on a 4G network, then you live in a part of the world that has encountered the Future. The Future, as somebody, maybe William Gibson, once said, is unequally distributed: the Future moves across the world in waves, reaching different communities and nations at different times as different technologies become available to the populace.

Post-ownership – what does that mean? It means that there are cultures in which all material needs of possession have been satisfied: the vast majority of the population (not all, but most) have a roof over their head, clothes on their body, food in their stomach (and their fridge), tools in their closet or cupboard, baking tins in their kitchen cupboard, more clothes in their (walk-in) wardrobe, and the ability to access more of the same at will. They also possess leisure time which they have been trained to spend – at least partly – in seeking and choosing more consumable products.

In fact, this widespread availability of stuff has gone so far as to generate a whole back-lash movement: Marie Kondo’s The Joy of Tidying, youtube videos on doing more with less, like the ones davehakkens produces, the fetishisation of the ‘authentic’ that hipster culture indulges in (at least according to Peter York’s analysis). Businesses like AirB’nB depend upon people’s growing preference for use over ownership.

The irony is that in many other cultures around the world, use and ownership were in a completely different relationship to that accepted as ‘normal’ within Western mainstream culture. Consider the waste and personal isolationism latent within the ownership of ten lawnmowers in a street of ten houses in an English town. On only one of a very few days would more than one of those lawnmowers be used: why are ten ‘necessary’? Because it is socially inappropriate to ask for or to use another person’s possession.

Consider by contrast the very different attitude of the Filipino car: my cousin possesses a car; my cousin is my family member; therefore I have access to a car. This is a “Filipino Syllogism”. My cousin is honour-bound, but also considers it normal, that on those less-than-frequent occasions when I require the use of a car, he should put both his car and his own time at my disposal. Why? Because possession within the Filipino community is not a matter of any single individual person’s ownership, but of the larger family group’s ownership. And so it is in many non-european cultures.

Ironically, the Judeo-Christian ideal of ownership is less influential on Western thought than you might expect: the coveting of your neighbour’s donkey is less of an issue when any particular family’s rights to land and objects are guaranteed by religious law, as in the Levitical pattern, and Jesus Christ’s teaching that should tease the grip of the possessive from their cloak and tunic has never been fully accepted by mainstream Western, English, British or European thinking.

The age of access is an age in which instant, international communication is abrading our current norms of possession, and culture is in the process of undergoing a permanent change. Even if we should experience a Massive Internet Collapse, culture influencers have now had a taste of a post-ownership life and will not let it be forgotten: it comes with the illusion of freedom, typified by wide choice and easy gratification.  I don’t write this bewailing the change, but observing it.  Asimov would do one better: posit a future in which any possession seemed strange and in which a historian, observing our present, would laugh.  Le Guin did one better than that in one of my top-five books, The Dispossessed.