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.