Is the era of ownership ending - and the era of "as-a-service" beginning?


From Demos Helsinki, a revolutionary thought: what if the era of owning things is over? They look at how younger generations are choosing not to own music, or cars, or movies - and how they naturally reach for services like Uber, Netflix, Spotify or Airbnb. The phrase DH uses is "As-A-Service":

The "as-a-service" framework began as a simple idea in software development, when companies started paying for access instead of buying permanent licenses for office programs. Now the same model is moving into the material world. Netflix, Spotify, AirBnb and Uber are all “as a service” companies.

“As a service” models become more and more feasible when the number of sensors that surround us increases. This development is often called the “Internet of Things.” But when we consider the Internet of Things from the perspective of disappearing products and the increase in new service models, we can effectively conclude that it is, in fact, the “Internet of No Things.”

What is so revolutionary about the “as a service” model then? Why is it good not to own things? There are two main reasons and these are related: First, ownership makes us lazy. Second, the planet cannot survive with us consuming so much stuff.

When we buy things we easily get bored with them and forget they exist, or, alternatively, use them only because we own them. On-demand is about using things when we actually need them. It leads to the more effective use of resources. AirBnb gets more people to use the same apartment and Uber gets more people to use the same car.

It takes a large amount of natural resources to manufacture a car, house, or smartphone in the first place. We are now running out of those resources. That’s why digital “as a service” platforms show great promise. In the future the “as a service” model will revolutionise some areas of our lives that are completely unsustainable right now such as housing, mobility and communications.

We recall this state of affairs being predicted by futurist Jeremy Rifkin in his book Age of Access in the late 90s. But it's also worth recording his anxieties about what kind of power relationships might result, in the shift from ownership to access. 

The shift in the structuring of human relationships from ownership to access appears to invite a trade-off of sorts whose outcome is far from certain. Will we liberate ourselves from our possessions, only to lose a sense of obligation to the things we fashion and use? Will we become more embedded in networks of relationships, only to become more dependent on powerful networks of corporate suppliers? (quoted here)

Regaining that "sense of obligation" is the aim of the Craftivist practices we have often highlighted here. Recent resistances to Uber, and the promotion of alternative models of platform services, show that we are gradually becoming aware of how we might depend on corporations too much. 

And contrary to the implication in the Demos piece that services are lighter on the planet than bought objects, we see the news that it takes as much electricity as Denmark consumes each day to keep the cryptocurrency bitcoin viable, in terms of the processing power it needs. And we can map this across to any of our "cloud-based" digital services (see Greenpeace's Click Clean report on this). 

So "as-a-service" could be a great shift - but we need to think like citizens about it, not just blithe consumers.