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Weekend Gems 010

October 16, 2023

Downloading houses, the quest for deciphering thing-ness and my first contact with parasitisme économique and intellectual property laws.

I am writing this blog post from a deep hole of subscription economy and property law readings. How I found myself in this hole might be less interesting (at least for the time being) than what some of the things I actually found down here. Let me explain:

This past weekend I found myself lost in the writings of Joshua Fairfield, a Law and Technology scholar at Washington and Lee School of Law. In a recent article, Fairfield deals with the issue of “thing-ness”, a concept that I always found quite vague, confusing and over-conceptual when dealing with it from an architectural angle (quite possibly because you would inevitably stumble—and be asked to decipher—Heidegger’s work*).  Anyway, Fairfield offers this definition for thingness:

Thing-ness is needed as a constraint to complexity, as a force for defragmentation, and as a mold for modularity to help counterbalance the nature of (digital) objects and their tendency to fragment and dissipate.

To better understand this definition, Fairfield asks us to think of a car: a car is a highly complicated technology. All of its components, all of its mechanisms, all of its intricate world is highly modular, stuff can be swapped out for other stuff. Yet when you buy a car, you buy the-car. Granted, the value of the car-as-a-thing is dictated by features, direct results of the modular components hidden in the-car. Yet when you buy a car you also buy intangible things; convenience, status, speed and so on and so forth. In this way one could argue that the thing-ness of the car is the total of physical and non-physical aspects that make it marketable, dis-assemblable, repairable and upgradeable.

The “repairable” (and by extend the “dis-assemblable”) quality here is key. Thing-ness, as connected to property ownership, minimizes the distance between a person and, well, a thing, by allowing the person to mess around with it: change it, break it down, tear it apart, alter it. If we accept Fairfield’s position that property is information, whether written in a ledge or written on the landscape, this process allows for the thing to receive more information through its interactions with the world, to acquire “palimpsest”-like qualities as people mess with it, hack it, withdraw it from the world and then throw it back in. 

It makes it even harder to copy.

You would much rather inherit your grandpa’s books rather than his Audible account, right?

As he was moving apartments in early 2021, Dan Greene had to say goodbye to some DVDs because, as his girlfriend reminded him, the couple was already paying for a bunch of different streaming providers so “why would he even need the DVDs in the first place?”. This led Dan to write a great piece about the erosion of personal ownership.

Reading the piece several questions popped up in my head. Does an object need a physical presence in our lives to hold meaning? Is it bad for a medium to be reduced to its intangible, ephemeral consumption? And, conversely, can emotional detachment from physical possessions be a positive shift?

These questions all seem to suggest a liberation from a capitalistic mindset. In some ways, it appears to align with the non-consumerist tactic (“tactic” as defined by de Certeau) in opposition to the capitalist strategy of ownership. However, what remains uncertain is the potential loss when the endeavor to possess fewer things transitions into renting extensive portions of one's daily life.

We very much still consume a great deal of things: music, films, art, furniture, houses. Yet, the shift is evident—ownership is replaced by mere usage rights. Αs Dan Greene notes:

Even our most solid, real-world possessions are increasingly inseparable from the intangible and ephemeral digital world. Which means that as much as our relationship to digital possessions may be evolving, so is our relationship to tangible ones — and it’s not a relationship in which the consumer holds much power.

Today tangible objects are increasingly embedded with copyrighted software or offered to us as-a-service which is yielding the power away from the end-user and very much retaining it to the company. Long story short: it might as well be a post-ownership era - just not for everyone. 

‘I affirm that I have created a life style that does not require my presence’

At some point, at least in the US, housing was considered “the global mascot of the ownership society”. This is hardly the case today: we live in apartments that carry little to no information of “personal”. We do not own (and thus cannot physically alter or permanently change), we do not fill them with objects that are uniquely ours or that have acquired the essence of ‘personal’ through time. Instead we carry the ‘personal’ in the form of passwords to subscription-based online services which we merely rent our right to temporarily use.

If we were once aligned with the idea that tactics weaponize time against space, then the current subscription-based economy and its post-ownership era might as well be the exact opposite: the weaponization of time by strategies. Living in short intervals by renting chunks of your everyday life that we are not allowed to mess with prevents us from storing crucial aspects of our being-ness in a format that we have bottom-up control of.

There must be some sort of clear horror assigned to this new era of dwelling, of in-habiting. Perhaps the horror of the double, of the copy? 

Maybe one day downloading a house will actually be possible.

Bonus Round

I was going through some notes on James Gleick’s book “FASTER” when I stumbled on this quote by Steward Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1980s, talking about the transition to digital storage. “There has never been a time of such drastic and irretrievable information loss. We’ve turned into a total amnesiac, we do short-term memory, period”. 

Well, last week the whole of the Whole Earth Catalog went online!