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The End of Ownership

On rent-seeking as a Service

Summer 2021

Still from a World Economic Forum video showing a happy man and the text You'll own nothing and you'll be happy.

They're not asking, they're telling.

In February (or maybe it was March?) of 1992, I bought my first piece of software ever. It was a copy of Deluxe Paint IV for the Amiga. I still have it, and it still works. Since it was delivered on floppies, I can install and use it on all of my computers at the same time (and I still do!), either through emulation or on real hardware. The manual is printed on paper: a heavy, ring bound affair that starts by teaching the user about the mouse and then gradually proceeds to more complex topics such as morphing, perspective and light table animation.

Today, most proprietary software and the accompanying documentation (if any) is offered through various subscription plans and is oftentimes executed in whole or in part on cloud servers. Computers are slowly becoming the thin clients various companies have mostly unsuccessfully tried to sell previously, such as Sun's JavaStation. Google Docs, Microsoft 365 and Adobe Photoshop are all SaaS, cloud, and a bunch of other buzzwords. Even games can now be played on cloud computers that simply stream the rendered frames in the form of a video.


For businesses, this is all old hat. Big corporations have been using Software as a Service since before it was called that, by way of recurring license and consultancy fees, CD-ROM subscriptions such as MSDN and service agreements regarding support, bug fixes and maintenance. Delivering things over the net is simply a more convenient way to receive the software - and in many cases at least initially cheaper. This is mostly fine if you're a big company, because if someone should fail to deliver on their promises, you can throw a couple of lawyers in the direction of the problem and at least cut your losses.

There are some problems with this, of course - such as medical equipment suddenly giving up because Windows 7 reached end of life, or perhaps important data that can no longer be accessed because some SaaS provider filed for bankruptcy and their proprietary file format now needs to be reverse engineered. These are risks that companies will get better at addressing and planning for and the vendors will have to accommodate such desires. This is, by and large, a functioning market situation.

Individuals and small businesses are in a more precarious situation. The tech-savvy ones will of course avoid the cloud, rely on free and open source software and use common, well documented file formats for their important private data. But even the most hardcore geeks live in the real world and must, if they want to have things such as a place to live and some kind of income, adapt to the general mechanisms of society. In Sweden, for example, it's getting increasingly hard to live a normal life without BankID, which in turn requires succumbing to at least one of the major proprietary ecosystems of Microsoft, Google or Apple. The same goes for hardware: platforms without something like the Intel Management Engine are getting rarer. Even IBM's POWER architecture seems to become reliant on closed source third-party firmware.

The Market Will Not Provide

There's an old saying that consumers vote with their wallets: if they dislike a product, they'll stop buying it, forcing the manufacturer to change (or go out of business). This may be true to some degree when speaking of something like shoes or kitchen knives, but certainly not when it comes to technology.

I'm sure most people would like software that puts them in charge of their computer, or at least doesn't spy on them - but the market will not provide. I'm sure a laptop with a 4:3 screen would sell perfectly fine, especially among software developers, but the market will not provide. In fact, manufacturers are instead intent on providing things we as consumers don't need and certainly never asked for, such as putting software in things that doesn't need any software.

Take a kitchen stove, for example. What used to be controlled by a simple set of rotary knobs, one for each hot plate, is now gradually devolving into touch button interfaces. The touch buttons are, on every single one of the various models I've seen so far, always more cumbersome to use than their mechanical predecessors. They often require more than one button to be pressed in sequence, are either too slow to react or are far too sensitive. In many cases, they're all of the above.

Firmware as a Service

It's not just kitchen appliances such as stoves and refrigerators that are computerized and bestowed with various amounts of pointless software. Anything from cars and televisions to toothbrushes, vacuum cleaners, elevators, doorbells and lightbulbs are also affected. Some are still in the stage of silly novelties for early adopters, but we're moving toward a situation where we can no longer buy TV:s without the smart, cars that don't depend on software to start and fridges without built-in WiFi.

All of this is claimed to be inevitable progress, akin to some law of nature, and one that is ultimately going to be beneficial to consumers. Exactly how we're going to benefit isn't always clear - my analog fridge keeps the food plenty cold, thank you very much, and I'm not convinced about the necessity of checking my celeriac stash's current level through an app. These are constructed solutions to non-problems, and in some cases - such as with touch controlled stoves - clearly add problems rather than solving them.

The real reason why software is included in the most mundane of objects is that the same SaaS subscription models can then be introduced in pretty much anything, along with planned obsolescence.

We may laugh at IoT lightbulbs or even angered Sonos owners today ("What did they expect, after all?"), but this is just the beginning. That top of the line TV you paid premium for not only requires constant software updates, it spies on you as well. Just like that designer WiFi fridge does - which, by the way, now also has a screen and loudspeaker. What better way to display AmazonFresh ads? In fact, let's put WiFi into a pair of glasses and slap an EULA on them. When the nano glass turns opaque in the middle of traffic, it's time to purchase a firmware update.

Conspiracy alert!

The handling of the current COVID pandemic has, quite rightly, sparked an accelerating mistrust in the capabilities and trustworthiness of governments and institutions across the world. The more fanciful claims are easy to write off as conspiracies, at best providing some entertainment value in the form of memes and at worst hampering serious discussion, making pundits self-censor for fear of crossing into the loony zone. Let's not fall into that trap!

The World Economic Forum (WEF), an NGO where the world elites congregate, is of course an easy target for any number of outlandish conspiracy theories. Such theories are however completely pointless when it comes to the issue at hand. That's because in order for something to be a conspiracy, it has to take place in secret, unbeknownst to the vast majority of people - such as claiming the presence of WMD:s where there are none. With the WEF and other similar organizations, such as the UN and the IMF, we find the scary and and crazy stuff just by listening to what they're actually saying out in the open and what kind of business practices they and our legislators - elected or otherwise - are apparently disinterested in combatting.

In 2016, the WEF published a video with their vision of a possible future. Among other things, it claims that we will own nothing, rent everything - and we'll be happy about it.

Still from a World Economic Forum video showing a drone carrying a box and the text Whatever you want you'll rent and it'll be delivered by drone.

Your rented dinner has arrived, valued Primecitizen!

For those who have experienced the downsides of closed and controlled tech platforms - such as trying to get an Apple computer repaired for a reasonable price, using third party inkjet cartridges or had books deleted from their Kindle - the shape of things to come may already be apparent. Objects we've traditionally owned and disposed of freely after purchase are more and more becoming rentals, perhaps not in name but undeniably in practice.

Media consumption should take place on devices and within an infrastructure providing ample digital rights management and monitoring. We're renting both the content and the delivery platforms at the discretion of faceless corporations, and this pattern is slowly seeping into more and more everyday situations and products.

Our possibility as consumers to "vote with our wallets" is diminishing, not just because a small number of large corporations deliberately limit our options ("Everyone is happy with 16:9 laptops and cars that run on software!"), but also because they're consolidating their power over our everyday lives in much more basic and thus impactful ways. It's no coincidence that Amazon bought Whole Foods: since we all have to eat, it's a great way to force people into their ecosystem of mass surveillance, worker exploitation and astroturfed consumer herding. The COVID pandemic, increasing demands for various expensive absolution certifications of businesses, and political rioters acting as useful idiot foot soldiers for the megacorps all exacerbate the situation by forcing already struggling local mom-and-pops out of business, limiting our choices even more.

Take me down to the Alphabet City

The very last remaining resort, our homes and ultimately our cities, are now also under attack. Investment companies such as BlackRock are buying single family houses well above market price in order to turn them into rentals, undermining the ability of future generations to own the homes in which they'll raise families. Meanwhile, Google are courting politicians through their Sidewalk Labs, eager to create the infrastructure needed for pushing surveillance capitalism and the rental concept into the supposedly public spaces we should all share as equals. Crosswalk light not turning green? I guess you forgot to sign up for the premium pedestrian plan - please wait another fifteen minutes to cross the street.

I may exaggerate for comical effect, but we don't really need hyperbole to realize that the more we rent, the more we're in the power of rent-seeking corporations in a stagnant economy.

The US seems to be the cutting edge in this unfolding of events, but the same patterns are emerging in Europe as well. Combined with an ever more volatile job market, things are looking grim indeed for average people to maintain any sort of meaningful control of their lives. China, meanwhile, is burning the other end of the candle by predictably behaving the way a successful and wealthy dictatorship is expected to: A paranoid mapping of all its citizens combined with increasing belligerence, both geopolitically and economically. So much for globalization fostering peace and popular prosperity.

The future is now

When I first read William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, the general setting struck me as a mostly implausible dystopia: people existing (though hardly living) in cramped rental spaces, eating processed krill and hustling in legal gray areas just to make ends meet. It's American and Chinese megacorps, not Japanese ones, that seemingly run the world - other than that I'd say he was eerily correct. The message from our elites could hardly be any clearer: rent your pod, eat your bugs and slave away at your gig. If you've got some time and money left over for leisure, feel free to rent an Amazon Kindle over the weekend - it comes pre-loaded with your choice of ideologically compliant comic books (Don't worry, it's mostly emojis and not much text), valid for 24 hours. And you'll better be happy about it.

There are movements and even attempts at legislation intended to combat this situation, such as Right to Repair. Companies like Librem cater to the geekiest among us, who might consider a life without Google or Apple with all the tradeoffs that entails. There are also proponents of older technology (such as those hellbent on listening only to vinyl records or driving vintage cars) and tech frugality (such as yours truly), but they are mostly scattered hobbyists with no real clout, lacking the ability - and perhaps otherwise mainstream opinions - to enthuse larger crowds.

Real change requires legislation that preempts a coming arms race from the tech giants, such as platforms being literally welded shut to stop repairs and introspection. I fear that the presumptive politicians capable of actually affecting such change are few and far between, easily falling prey to the cadres of influencers, media personalities, content creators, ideology producers, CEO:s, investors and competing politicians who wouldn't think twice before either hijacking a campaign or simply cancelling it in order to protect their lucrative positions in the current DRM-infested ad and surveillance economy.

Whatever the future holds, I'm sure it'll be a popular uprising of some sort. How it will look, if it will be successful and even what side it will really fight for remains to be seen.