I just read a really good post from Martin Weller on Ed Techie called Ownership ain't what it used to be. Talking about web-based music sharing services such as LastFM, and having just signed up to Spotify, Martin says:

It brought back to me some considerations I'd had about the nature of ownership. My generation will have a distinctly different concept of ownership to that of my daughter's generation. For my generation you partly constructed your identity around what you owned - your bookshelf, record collection and DVD archive were important aspects of who you were (as anyone who has read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity will appreciate). But for the digital generation this strong link with ownership has been broken.

It took time and money to build up any of those collections. Therefore they demonstrated a commitment which was worth exhibiting. In a digital world this effort is greatly reduced, and as a result so is the emotional attachment one feels towards them.

This rings very true to me. I'm also interested in a slightly different aspect to this. When I first bought an iPod for myself (about 3-4 years ago), I went for the small 'Nano' model knowing that it had limited capacity (around 2GB if memory serves). My CD collection could not possibly fit on this device - but I did not mind. I didn't see the iPod as a replacement for the media I owned, I saw it as a convenient way to get access to my favourite music - where 'favourite' could be a flexible category. I distinctly remember an argument with a colleague who was horrified that I would extract just one or two songs from a particular album - I think he saw this as a kind of desecration of an artwork. I realised at the time that I might be more of a consumer than a connoisseur of popular music (I definitely preferred the 'punk single' to the 'concept album'). However, it was only when I started to buy the odd tune from iTunes that I realised something more profound had changed. I could now buy a single tune, from an album, without needing to own, or even know or care, what ever else might be on that album. In the last three years I have only bought one album for myself (a CD from Amazon), because it was cheaper than buying the 6 songs I wanted from iTunes. I don't take any particular pride in my CD collection: for some time I have had a vague plan to archive it all to disk (quicker than being selective), make sure I have a good backup, and dispose of the CDs. But as Martin points out:

Imagine a service like Spotify greatly increased so you could find any artist, and with mobile devices, get access anywhere. Why do I need to own any of these tracks then? I can get them whenever I want, and isn't that the point of ownership, to have access under your control?

We'd certainly need to closely examine the 'access under your control' part of such an arrangement but this is, nonetheless, an attractive proposition to me. Will I feel the same way about books, I wonder, once, or indeed if, devices for reading eBooks become so good that I no longer need the paper format?

Martin talks about this in the context of identity - and how ownership of music was a major signifier in how certain generations (mine included) of young people constructed their identities. He speculates that this will now change with current generation of young people. But I'm also interested in a more prosaic matter: If you stripped my house of CDs (not forgetting vinyl records and cassette-tapes) and, more significantly, books, then my home environment would be changed dramatically. I already think twice before buying reference books - knowing that there is a wealth of good reference material on the web.

Clearly, aesthetics matter also. There is pleasure to be had in handling a nicely formed book. Album covers on vinyl LPs can be beautiful (something which was lost with the move to CD). Bearing this in mind I predict that, ten years from now, I will have disposed of:

  • 100% of my cassette-tapes
  • 99% of my CDs
  • 99% of my DVDs
  • 99% of my vinyl singles
  • 70% of my vinyl albums
  • 50% of my books

Instead, I will have access to massive amounts of data storage - not necessarily owned by me, and access to huge libraries of music, film, text etc. via excellent client hardware and software.

Now, what will I do with all that shelf space?

N.B. I realise that my views on music may be partly a product of age - I certainly care a little less passionately about specific pieces of music now than I did when I was much younger. (I once stopped talking to a friend for a while at school because they said the Smiths were rubbish, when they were clearly supreme at the time) ;-)