K. E. Colombini | Exploring how technological and cultural developments are transforming our understanding of property.
Two recent articles take a look at the effect of technology on our consumerist society and reach startlingly different conclusions. One laments that we don’t own as much stuff as we used to, while the other talks about how online shopping has created a nation of hoarders. Can both be true, at the same time?
Writing for Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen makes the first argument. He is an economics professor at George Mason University, where he also directs the Mercatus Center, and he admits to worrying about “the erosion of personal ownership and what that will mean for our loyalties to traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.”
Examples are clear, starting with books. When we buy a book in hard or soft cover, it is a physical object we own and can sell. When we buy an ebook for our Kindle or similar device, we don’t own it in the same way. In fact, the argument can easily be made that we don’t own it at all. We actually buy a license to read it, and Amazon has control over the terms of the license. “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider,” the agreement states, adding: “We may change, suspend, or discontinue the Service, in whole or in part, including adding or removing Subscription Content from a Service, at any time without notice.” The analog analogy would be if I buy a book at a bookstore, and the bookstore owner comes to my home and demands it back, without even offering to pay me back. The same applies to other media, of course, such as music or movies, as we transition away from hard copies to streaming or digital files.
Another similar example can be offered easily enough, although it is one most consumers don’t think about. When we buy a car, we don’t actually buy all of it. The software that runs important components is often managed through a licensing agreement, something most consumers don’t pay attention to. Over the years, this has proved controversial, with General Motors and John Deere stressing the importance of software copyright and licensing and using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to bar consumer or private auto repair shops from repairing them themselves. More and more state legislatures are looking at so-called “Right to Repair” legislation to help the independent operators.
At the same time we are using Amazon to—rent?—ebooks for our Kindle, we are using the online service to buy a lot of physical stuff, even things readily available at the local supermarket, and that is where the other argument about becoming a nation of hoarders comes in.
Writing in The Atlantic, Alana Semuels tallies the high cost of our consumerist society. She notes that last year, we spent $240 billion on possessions (goods like jewelry, watches, books, luggage, and telephones and related communication equipment, reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis), twice as much as we spent in 2002. Semuels also notes that the number of self-storage facilities has doubled in the same time frame, to 52,000. “Thanks to a perfect storm of factors, Americans are amassing a lot of stuff,” she writes. “Now, we can shop from anywhere, anytime—while we’re at work, or exercising, or even sleeping.” One pathetic example: Semuels reported that the students who moved out of the Michigan State University dorms left behind nearly 150,000 pounds of their junk, from clothes to furniture.
At the same time we think about the compatibility of these two phenomena—a shift from material ownership to digital licensing, and the ease of acquiring more things—we must consider a third observation, the concurrent trendy interest in minimalism. The Kindle is supposed to be a great example of a minimizer, allegedly removing the need for bookshelves full of dusty volumes and with our smartphones we don’t need a stack of CDs to enjoy music. They were almost designed with the “tiny house” trend in mind.
Not too long ago in The New York Times, the writer Kyle Chayka called minimalism an “oppressive gospel,” one that pits wealthy elites against the common riff-raff of society. “The movement, such as it is, is led in large part by a group of men who gleefully ditch their possessions as if to disavow the advantages by which they obtained them,” he writes. “But it takes a lot to be minimalist: social capital, a safety net and access to the internet.”
It gets worse, when you consider where the technology is made, he says. “The technology we call minimalist might fit in our pockets, but it depends on a vast infrastructure of grim, air-conditioned server farms and even grimmer Chinese factories.”
Another critic poses minimalism as an example of Western privilege, talking about how it is the opposite of how some immigrants look at ownership. Arielle Bernstein, whose family left behind home and possessions when they left Cuba in 1968, explains why it is hard for some to accept the new minimalism. “Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust,” she writes. “For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away.” The article is a response to Japanese decluttering expert Marie Kondo, perhaps most famous for her idea of keeping only possessions that “spark joy.”
Lacking in the vast majority of these discussions in the mainstream media is the spiritual side of the equation. What should be our relationship with our possessions? Do they own us, or do we own them? Even in talking about the benefits of minimalism, we often are taking a secular approach. By shedding our possessions, we become liberated from them, freer to travel and spend our money elsewhere. If there’s anything “tiny houses” are built for, it’s not for large families, or for entertaining and showing hospitality to large groups.
We have become a consumerist society, to be sure, and one where it is cheaper and easier to replace your television than have it repaired, and where obsolescence is built into the newest gadget. Chayka’s point about the destructive nature of our technological age is a strong one, and we get the idea easily enough that it will be harder and harder to find real, lasting “joy” in many of the possessions that our obsession with one-click shopping provides.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and four grandchildren.