It was not long ago that every home had a shrine of collected media: CDs, DVDs, books neatly organized for quick reference and dusted off daily for the prying eyes of neighbors and potential mating partners. In reverse these shelves helped us assess the alleged mental and emotional development or character of the people we visited. Owning a particular CD or DVD became conversation starters, ice-breakers, invoking distant memories and exposing latent opinions by simply scanning the shelves like a DNA code.

From Physical to Digital Collections

It was not much later that these shelves slowly gave way to personal digital libraries on our laptops and mobile devices. People still collected movies and decades of discographies on their hard-drives, passing on parts of their collections on USB sticks and DVDs to friends and coworkers. Sharing increased significantly because we could easily duplicate our media, but – more importantly – giving away truckloads of music and movies was the only way to display our collection and socialize around it like in the old days.

But even this has passed. Thanks to services like Spotify and Netflix even our personal digital libraries are vanishing. Constant access overrides ownership. We can save ourselves the trouble of burning CDs or shoveling content on USB drives. Instead, we simply send a link to an album or a movie.

Whether this process may be sad or simply convenient, it will eventually happen to our books, too. They’ve already disappeared from our shelves and migrated to e-reading devices, neatly categorized in personal collections but invisible except to their owner. Furthermore, when we purchase ebooks through Amazon we don’t really own them. Our money doesn’t buy us a three-dimensional artifact for our shelves, instead it buys us access to the book from a variety of devices, anytime, anywhere.

Access instead of Ownership

All of the above puts the question of ownership in a new light.

Ownership used to be a prerequisite for access. If you didn’t own a book, movie or music album (even if just temporarily through a friend or library), you couldn’t access (read, watch or listen to) it. But if the cloud allows access anywhere, anytime – then what’s the role of ownership?

Is ownership perhaps even more important today when companies try to dictate the way we consume our media? Can we really rely on public libraries and corporations to store and collect all relevant cultural media for future generations? Or is the emotional attachment to our physical or even digital media libraries just a remnant of the past?

img: CC by Daniel*1977