What Does it Mean to Own Some “Thing”, Anyway?


‪#‎TPP‬ will make it illegal to unlock or jail-break your phone.”

Wikileaks – TPP

I wonder if the “Internet of Things” advocates realize that they are radically redefining “thing” such that it can no longer be considered “owned”?

In the notion of personal property, as opposed to capital, or rentier property, the “thing” is mine, nobody is expected to do anything about it, nor can it be taken away except by a physical theft. Tesla this week, however, demonstrated that they can change the workings of their cars via a wireless software update. But that also means they can switch them off, permanently, should it be in their interest to do so. The same goes for any locked phone, or any other device that is part of a network and dependent on that network. If I own a book, it’s mine. If I own a Kindle I’m dependent on Amazon continuing to support the Kindle as a device. Once that support ends, it’s essentially a doorstop, like every other device that is dependent on some sort of network for its functionality.

I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact it may be a great thing. Perhaps “things” were in fact always being overdetermined by being viewed as property, and thus not treated appropriately.  But it renders current property law obsolete and proposed laws such as #TPP fail to realize that, while extending every possible protection to the corporations involved and none to the individual. The first question it raises is why I or anyone else should buy something I don’t properly own. If in reality I am simply renting a service that happens to be delivered via a given device, and the manufacturer maintains complete control over that device including the ability to render it useless at any time, there’s no reason for me to pay for anything other than the service. If the company wants me to use their services, they’ll have to start supplying the devices. And those that supply better devices will get more customers for their services, so it will be in their interest to supply the best devices they can, whether it’s a cell phone, e-reader or a mode of personal transportation.

So it starts with things like cell phones and e-readers, but it can’t end there. If my car and my refrigerator and television and whatever else is simply a gateway to networked services there’s no reason I should be expected to pay for the devices, since I do not, in point of fact, own them.  LIke the desubstantialization of currency, ownership of any thing is largely a matter of belief.  When that belief itself loses currency, it will have to be replaced faster than your latest iPhone.

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