Owning things used to be simple. You went to the store. You paid money for something, whether it be a TV, clothes, books, toys, or electronics. You took your item home, and once you paid it off, that thing belonged to you. It was yours. You could do whatever you wanted with it. That’s not how it is today, and by 2030, technology will have advanced to the point that even the idea of owning objects might be obsolete.
Many a think piece has been written about how Millennials aren’t as interested in owning things as their predecessors. After decades of Boomers keeping up with the Joneses, Millennials were supposedly “more about the experience” than physical goods. There’s a kernel of truth in that, but the shift to services was telegraphed a long time ago.
Back in 2016, the World Economic Forum released a Facebook video with eight predictions it had for the world in 2030. “You’ll own nothing. And you’ll be happy,” it says. “Whatever you want, you’ll rent. And it’ll be delivered by drone.”
“Everything you considered a product, has now become a service,” reads another WEF essay published on Forbes. “We have access to transportation, accommodation, food, and all the things we need in our daily lives. One by one all these things became free, so it ended up not making sense for us to own much.”
The WEF’s framing is overly optimistic, but this is the future we’re rapidly hurtling toward. I rent my apartment, and therefore, all the home appliances in it. If I wanted, I could rent all my furniture and clothes. Sure, I have my own computer and phone, but there are plenty of people who use company-issued gadgets. And if I didn’t want company-issued items, I could always rely on electronics rentals. I like cooking and grocery shopping, but I could just sign up for a meal kit service and call it a day. I wouldn’t even need appliances like toasters, rice cookers, blenders, air fryers, or anything beyond a microwave. To get around, there are Citi Bikes, Uber, and Zipcar.
You might be wondering—what’s the problem here? Consumerism is exhausting, and as far as housing goes, ownership isn’t the golden ideal it’s cracked up to be. In some ways, not owning things is easier. You have fewer commitments, less responsibility, and the freedom to bail whenever you want. There are upsides to owning less. There’s also a big problem.
When you don’t own anything, you’re trading autonomy for convenience. You only have to look to the Internet of Things to see where the narrative starts to crack.
To use a recent example, Peloton recalled its Tread+ treadmill after multiple children, pets, and adults were injured using the machine. Part of the solution was to release a software update, Tread Lock, that requires a 4-digit passcode to prevent unauthorized use—a factor that played into at least some of the reported injuries. However, there was a dust-up online when users read the fine print: The Just Run feature of the Tread+, which allowed Peloton owners to run without taking a class, had moved from a free feature to one locked behind a subscription paywall.
The internet loves to get mad, and it turned out that Peloton would be giving all Tread+ owners three free months of membership while it worked on a way to enable Tread Lock and Just Run simultaneously without requiring a subscription. Arguably, the majority of Peloton Tread+ owners weren’t even angry about it. But those that were cited the principle of the matter. They had paid over $4,000 for a treadmill and that should’ve given them the ability to use the Tread+ however they wanted. Who was Peloton to change the rules on them?
The reality is when you buy a device that requires proprietary software to run, you don’t own it. The money you hand over is an entry fee, nothing more.
When everything is a lease, you also agree to a life defined by someone else’s terms.
In 2020, Sonos retired its legacy speakers, many of which were still functional. It sparked outrage. Again, users had bought hardware and expected that their one-time transaction meant they fully owned their devices. But they didn’t. By buying those devices, consumers bought access to Sonos’ services and Sonos effectively leased their hardware. That meant Sonos ultimately gets to decide when a device is at the end of its life.
Another company that does this is Whoop, a fitness tracker that focuses on recovery. The tracker itself costs nothing. Whoop will send that to you for free because it recognizes the tracker isn’t the product. The app is the product, and to get access to the app, you must pay a monthly $30 fee.
Connected devices require servers. Servers cost money. When you, the consumer, pay a one-time fee, that doesn’t help a company keep the lights on. It’s why planned obsolescence exists. It’s why Apple, a company that’s known for its hardware, started pivoting to services in 2019. It’s why Fitbit rolled out a premium subscription tier, Netflix is mulling cracking down on password sharing, and every other entertainment company is launching their own streaming service instead of licensing their content to Hulu.
When hardware is merely a vessel for software and not a useful thing on its own, you don’t really get to decide anything. A company will decide when to stop pushing vital updates. It might also decide what you do with the product after it’s “dead.”
Even before Sonos retired its legacy products, the company offered a method for people to recycle older gadgets in exchange for a discount on newer devices. In the past, when you no longer wanted something, you could put it up for resale, donate it, throw it out, or let it collect dust in your basement. To get that discount, however, you had to agree to brick the device and either send it back to Sonos or drop it off at an e-waste recycler. (Sonos later reversed this decision, but only after significant backlash.)
With Sonos’ legacy devices, the company actually spelled out the four options users had, but stacked the deck to steer consumers in a particular direction. You could get rid of all the legacy devices. You could participate in the upgrade program. You could continue to use the devices, with the understanding that as time went on, Sonos would likely stop providing security updates. If you had a mix of old and new speakers, you could split them into two groups. That’s because Sonos’ new app didn’t support older speakers, and so consumers lost the ability to group new and legacy devices. Of all these, the second one makes the most sense if you want to continue using Sonos’ services. So really, your choice is to upgrade now, upgrade later, or leave.
This is the reality of a service-first world. The power has shifted so that companies set the parameters, and consumers have to make do with picking the lesser of several evils. Even then, users don’t really have a choice. The internet is now considered a utility, and it’s not like we can put connected devices back into Pandora’s box. You might be able to opt out now, but that’s going to be increasingly unviable. Really, you only have the illusion of choice. This isn’t new. As technology advances, we have fewer options to choose from even as companies tell us we have more choices than ever.
You can trace much of this back to Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which basically makes it illegal to circumvent “digital locks” that protect a company’s proprietary software. It’s why it’s OK for Big Tech to void your warranty if you jailbreak certain devices or force you to spend more money to get a broken gadget repaired by an authorized shop. Activists have won exemptions to the DMCA over the past few decades—but there’s always a lag. The Copyright Office only reviews new exemptions every three years, and three years in the tech world is a mighty long time.
The utopian ideal of the future the WEF proposed can’t exist so long as anyone can legally own ideas. Companies have argued for decades that because they own the software, you’re only licensing hardware. If your smart home of the future comes with its own email address and operating system, what happens when the company controlling it pushes out an update you don’t like? What if they take away a feature you love and depend on? Switching from iPhone to Android, Google Assistant to Amazon Alexa, or macOS to Windows is already a pain. Now imagine doing that for your entire home and everything in it that can possibly connect to the internet. Your thermostat, your refrigerator, your light bulbs, your picture frames, your TVs, your beds, and all the connected gadgets we haven’t invented yet. Some people will have the willpower to do it, but most of us? We’ll probably just settle for the easiest choice.
Case in point: I moved to a new apartment recently. Thanks to covid-19 pricing, it’s in a bougie building with snazzy amenities. I get emails whenever packages arrive and when someone picks them up, I have a fob that grants me access to various parts of the building, and no less than seven separate apps to control doors, reserve a spot in the pool, pay rent, request maintenance, and access a mini social media network for everyone who lives in this building. It’s all very convenient until it’s not.
One day, the fob that grants access to enter and exit the garage malfunctioned. My husband and I were effectively trapped. Our choices were to wait for someone to find us, or seek the help of staff. I waited, he sought help. He then got trapped in an elevator because again—the fobs weren’t working. For a good half hour, we were separated, trapped, and had to hope building staff would eventually find us. It was a stark reminder that for as much as we pay in rent, we’ve only bought temporary access to this building. We don’t control whether our key fobs will continue to grant us access to the gym, pool, service elevator, outdoor gates, side doors, or common areas. We don’t control whether the management company will change or cut us off from the apps that allow us to pay rent, put in maintenance requests, grant friends and family access, or reserve common facilities.
But that’s the rub with renting, right? Surely, those of us who can afford homeownership are free of this nonsense? To an extent. One day in the future, if you buy a physical house, you will likely have to rent the software that operates it. You won’t really have a say in the updates that get pushed out, or the features that get taken away. You’ll have less of a say in when you renovate or upgrade, even if you want to continue using the house as is. You might not even have the right to do DIY repairs yourself. Just because you’ve bought a smart washing machine, doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed to repair it yourself if it breaks—or if you’ll be allowed to pick which repair shop can fix it for you. You only have to look as far as John Deere, Apple, and General Motors. Each one of these companies has argued that people who bought their products weren’t allowed to repair them unless they were from a pre-approved shop.
The scary thing is that only sounds terrible if you have the mental energy to care about principles. Making decisions all the time is difficult, and it’s easier when someone else limits the options you can choose from. It’s not hard to turn a blind eye to a problem if, for the most part, your life is made a little simpler. Isn’t that what every tech company says it’s trying to do? Make your life a little simpler? Life is hard enough already, and living in a home that maintains itself so long as you hand over control—well, by 2030, who’s to say that’s not what we’ll all want?