Dematerialize: Changing the Ways We Relate to Product & Ownership

There is a large and fast-moving shift occurring within the landscape of tools & technology. Increasingly, products are dematerializing and being re-engineered as services. This shift is being driven in part by rising production costs and an increasing awareness of the very real environmental impacts of producing durable goods and managing their end-of-life downstreaming into landfills. It is also a response to the rapid digitization of culture pushing many consumables into less tangible data transactions, often mediated through increasingly fetishized devices. Thus, content is becoming disengaged from fixed carriers like disk media and paper and is, instead, flowing through networks and devices.

Perhaps the most iconic and revolutionary example of this trend is the pairing of Apple’s iPod with its iTunes service. For the past 20 years, millions upon millions of cd’s, dvd’s, cases, and printed inserts have been consuming resources, fixing materials into unrecoverable or downcycled hard media and filling landfills. Apple has fundamentally rewritten this paradigm by dematerializing the content – music & movies – and connected it directly with the player. The materials & energetic overhead has been consolidated into a (hopefully) more durable device, freeing the high-volume transactional content from such a large resource burden. While there are manufacturing and reclamation costs associated with the device, the impact is lessened by decoupling those costs from the content.

There have since been an ever-increasing movement away from product towards services, as easily illustrated with the rise of online services within the Web 2.0 age. Digital cameras are another example that, like the iPod, decoupled the relentless production of content from a toxic & non-renewable material carrier – in this case, film & print paper. Likewise, print production itself has increasingly moved away from expensive, wasteful, and toxic inks & papers and has re-targeted to the ubiquity of screens. More & more “print” content – once the domain of magazines, newspapers, brochures, and advertising shwag – has moved away from hard carriers. Again, the pattern shows content being released from material substrates to move effortlessly across networks and devices.

There are a few interesting effects of this trend. Of course, piracy of content becomes considerably easier and cheaper. Content can be copied and moved across networks effortlessly, and copy protection is just another set of bits to be cracked. As Stewart Brand keenly observed, “information wants to be free” and the rapid digitization of culture has radically reinforced this proposition forcing every pre-web industry to completely re-evaluate their business models. Conversely, the bitifying of content and the democratization of powerful desktop authoring tools has empowered and emboldened the historical allure of remixing and massively reinvigorated our cultural creativity. Ironically, in an age that has enabled so many to create so much, the notion of intellectual property has less merit now than ever. When your content contains bits from 10 other pieces of content, who actually owns it? As has been noted by many authors & analysts, the genie is out of the bottle.

But perhaps more interesting are the behavioral and psychological shifts happening in response to these trends. As stuff dematerializes into intangible bits, the fact that we can no longer touch product subtly undermines the very notion of ownership. We begin to abstract our relationship to stuff as something we interact with more than possess. While this is potentially liberating it also makes it easier for content providers to assert total ownership in perpetuity: you’re merely borrowing content through a service provided by the “real” owner. Without direct ownership, are we protected and do we still have the right to share?

With respect to content, personal ownership has shifted to the device – the increasingly fetishized container through which content is constantly flowing. Our smart phones are awesomely empowering extensions of our selves, conferring unimaginable abilities to their owner. The simplest & most intuitive of these devices become second nature, third-hand extensions of our bodies, effortlessly wiring us to each other, to content, and vast stores of knowledge. Of course we fetishize such objects and of course we’ve grown dependent upon them.

Industrialization has regrettably optimized its business model through planned obsolescence, with much hard product designed to time-out and push an upsell to the next model. No doubt the devices we now rely so heavily upon have their own built-in failings, whether intentional or simply as a byproduct of the profit margin incentivised to invest in no more quality than is absolutely necessary. So have the benefits of dematerializing content from cheap carriers been negated by the resource requirements and inevitable breakdown of our devices? Has the energetic and environmental impact spared by going paperless been doubled by the sheer overhead of manufacturing and running vast global server farms? Any real evaluation of the dematerialization of products to services must consider the very large impact of the infrastructure supporting it.

Nevertheless, this is where we’re headed. Mobiles will get smarter & prettier and will be increasingly targeted for content and transient marketing. Screens will continue to multiply at an exponential pace finding their way into all aspects of our lives. Hardware manufacturers will be increasingly beholden to both international standards committees and shareholders to account for the carbon and environmental impacts of their processes. And the notion of object and ownership will continue to be challenged in ways yet unknowable.

[Acknowledgements to Gavin Starks of AMEE, Tish Shute at Ugotrade, and Lane Becker and Thor Muller of Get Satisfaction.]


  1. William Todd

    Fascinating analysis. I particularly enjoyed the idea that the very nature of ownership is changing/evolving.

    I was reminded somehow of Karl Marx’s belief that he/she that controls the means of production wins. I suggest that we therefore keep a close eye on whomever controls the ‘pipes’ as this may be the option of last resort for disgruntled copyright owners.

  2. chris arkenberg

    Albert, I think the econopocalypse is putting a lot of pressure on manufactures to veer away from the replacement paradigm. People simply aren’t buying new stuff when the old stuff breaks or grows outdated. We’re moving back to the post-Depression era thinking that values repair skills, longevity of goods, and heritage craft. Services naturally fit on top of these needs.

    William, indeed the pipes are a major systempunkt, to use John Robb’s term. Especially if by “pipe” we mean the very copper & fiber lines that our networks & services run on. Whether attacked by militants or restricted by AT&T, we could be seriously screwed if the major data arteries are closed. I expect we’ll see more and more wifi meshnets growing around the major carriers, especially to reinforce local emergency systems – eg. it’s vital to maintain comm nets during major fires or earthquakes – but also to sidestep efforts towards control, coercion, and pay-to-play business models.

  3. Alex Bowles

    Totally agree that the change here is big enough to warrant a wholesale reconsideration of Property as a concept, and by extension, a basis of law.

    There has always been a certain tension between the different regulations the apply to tangible and intangible goods. In the last decade that’s degenerated into outright abuse as content cartels built around analog formats try to obliterate the (legal) difference entirely, by pressing for changes that make violations of copyright law criminal, instead of civil matters.

    This involves a pretty radical re-evaluation of the notion of Property. Specifically, a devolution, as the MPAA, RIAA, et. al. try to do away with established classifications so they can reduce society to having only one concept of property; a concept that applies to tangible and intangible goods alike, then defaults to the far more stringent set of penalties that apply to physical property – not to mention the policing and enforcement burdens that, like all criminal matters, fall on the state instead of the litigants involved in civil disputes.

    But now that the concept of Property is open to debate, it’s reasonable to propose that we go the other way instead. Instead of devolving, we evolve, and develop a new – and much more fluid – concept of property that aligns with the reality of networked streams.

    After all, Property is not a fact. It’s an idea. We created it to advance our well-being. To this day, there’s a direct correlation between the wealth of nations and their respect for property rights. And rights – to be effective – must be widely respected. Not simply because people fear punishment, but because they are seen as being right.

    No thinking person is going to respect a devolution in a concept as vital as property, any more than they’d accept a fundamentalist whack-job demanding that we outlaw globes for not being flat.

    My suggestion is that we leave copyright law alone by restricting it to the area for which is was designed – the reproduction and distribution of physical copies – and move onto a formal recognition that disembodied digital content is a completely new and distinct thing.

    Material that lives exclusively in networked digital environments needs its own code of governance. That need is already addressed – to an extent – by the social norms that have developed informally (e.g. file sharing is okay, plagiarism is not). It’s time now to expand the concept of Property itself so that these norms can be codified into coherent and Constitutional law.

    Until we do, the full economic promise of the internet will go unrealized. In the meantime, we’ll be subject to attacks from fundamentalists that would like to see us reverting to a concept of IP that pre-dates Gutenberg.

  4. chris arkenberg

    Very good points, Alex. I especially agree that digital assets need their own definition regarding copyright and property. It always takes a while for old institutions to adapt to new changes – often, there’s a lot of fear involved as the receding models face these unforeseen challenges and panic. This seems to be a signature of our times: the old ways are struggling and thrashing as they face their end amidst the rise of new paradigms enabled by global communication and the rapid digitisation of culture.

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