Thursday Thinkpiece: The Ever-Looming Issue of Immediacy vs. Ownership

Under the guise of convenience, media providers are wresting control from individuals and reaping the benefits in perpetuity.

It’s hard to argue against the convenience of streaming media without looking like you’ve donned a tinfoil hat, but it is a growing technological trend that will only continue to expand, as will the ethical issues associated with it. It’s a practice that’s rife with opportunities, both ones that undoubtedly benefit the public as a whole and ones that exploit their wallets to create an infinite revenue stream for the service provider.

The funny thing is that the initial catalyst isn’t some sinister plot by shadowy corporations, but simply because of a society transitioning to a new method of consumption. The notion of a personal library or collection is diminishing with every passing year. Physical copies of media are increasingly seen as niche items, and even digital files are seen as burdensome. How’s this for dramatic and not hyperbolic at all: the MP3 has literally been killed.

Apple’s Music streaming service is expected to overtake the iTunes store by 2020.

Of course this doesn’t absolve corporations from their opportunistic exploit of this trend. While streaming does provide instant access, it also requires subscription (read: constant cashflow). You can have everything, sure, but the minute your credit card maxes out, you don’t have anything anymore.

The consumer is starting to actually own fewer and fewer things, as every piece of media becomes an indefinite rental. Any sort of perceived collection you may have is entirely at the whim of the provider, and may disappear at any moment- see Netflix’s revolving door of available titles. To make things more frustrating, the proliferation of streaming services (both audio and video) and the licensing agreements with all of them means that there really isn’t a one-stop shop for everything. You’ve got to have multiple subscriptions to be able to get everything you’d like. Some songs are on Spotify, others are TIDAL exclusives. Some series are on Netflix, others only on Hulu. Region-based availability is a pain as well. Some countries cannot access content just because of legalities.

It’s not accessible everywhere, as well- without an internet connection and sufficient data, you don’t have the unlimited control you think you have over when you can bust out your jams or catch up on an episode on a long commute. It’s all reliant on several factors.

Of course, much of this might be annoying, but it’s largely minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things- “first world problems” at best, which might simply be going through growing pains and are in the process of being smoothed out. So here’s where things get legitimately concerning: when your own work is no longer your own.

Software licensing now works in a way that you never actually buy the program, you simply pay for it year after year. When the subscription runs out, you lose your work. Any files you’ve created with applications like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop will no longer be accessible. This is something familiar to anyone who’s used a trial version before, but now it’s been extended to the full product. Software companies merely allow you to use it for a defined amount of time. You are not the owner of what you make. In fact, even the least technologically-related industries are affected. You can’t even own a tractor anymore. 

Gamers are among those who feel the brunt of this the most. Having to deal with “DLC” (downloadable content), they know all too well the feeling of limited access. There is no standalone, complete experience with any game or app anymore- every piece of software is not fully finished without a deluge of add-ons. It’s extremely lucrative; nickel-and-diming has become dollar-and-dollaring, and there’s really no regulations on how much companies can charge for extra content.

There’s the spectre of piracy as well. A problem in its own right, and also the cause of increasingly strict safety measures. Operating systems can now detect pirated software and prevent you from using it. This is what happens when “this is why we can’t have nice things” becomes “this is why we can’t have things at all”. Although this is necessary in many cases, it’s frightening to see how far this monitoring will go.

It’s a multi-pronged issue. The general shift towards less physical material is overall a boon to the world, but this period of upheaval between paradigms is complicated and will take years to smooth out. It doesn’t help that we’re being goaded along by those with less-than-savory intentions.