January 22, 2009
Life in the Eternal Hotel
“Life in the eternal hotel” was the phrase I coined on what I think was my first-ever comment on Snarkmarket, now almost five years ago. The idea is to try to push how far we’d be willing to swap ownership of objects for subscribtion to services:
There are some things that we own that we expect to be permanent, or nearly so, and other things that we own that automatically have a limited shelf life: light bulbs being the best example. Nobody names a light bulb because, even if you legally own it, you don’t own it in the sense of having a long-term personal investment: you use it, it breaks, and you throw it away. Speaking of which, I’d love to have services for trash bags, toilet paper, paper towels, printer ink, soap, shampoo, shaving cream, razor blades, deodorant, laundry and dishwasher detergent (or perhaps laundry and dishwashing services?), contact lenses, and (at least sometimes) food. (Not that life in the dorms was all that wonderful.) It’d be great if you could have all of those pumped into your house like gas, water, or electricity…
The question is to what degree people will be willing to accept an impermanent relationship to certain kinds of things. I doubt that there is anything intrinsic to most objects that would preclude us from using them temporarily: our impulse to name or to fetishize comes from our sense of long attachment, rather than the other way around. Of course, there are cultural differences to be overcome. Some people couldn’t see themselves without owning a car, but could easily not own books (instead reading periodicals, at the library, or not at all); for me, despite my Detroitness, it’s now the other way around. A better question to ask is whether we could live without any sense of permanent ownership: life in the eternal hotel.
Kevin Kelly has something similar up today, with a post called “Better Than Owning”:
Sharing intangibles scales magnificently. This ability to share on a large scale without diminishing the satisfaction of the individual renter is transformative. The total cost of use drops precipitously (shared by millions instead of one). Suddenly, ownership is not so important. Why own, when you get the same utility from renting, leasing, licensing, sharing?
But more importantly why even possess it? Why take charge of it at all if you have instant, constant, durable, full access to it? If you lived inside of the world’s largest rental store, why would you own anything? If you can borrow anything you needed without possessing it, you gain the same benefits with fewer disadvantages. If this was a magic rental store, where most of the gear was stored “downstairs” in a virtual basement, then whenever you summoned an item or service it would appear at your command.
The internet is this magic rental store. Its virtual basement is infinite, and it provides omni-access to its holdings. There are fewer and fewer reasons to own, or even possess anything. Via omni-access the most ordinary citizen can get hold of a good or service as fast as possessing it. The quality of the good is equal to what you can own, and in some cases getting hold of it may be faster than finding it on your own in your own “basement.”
Obviously, for beauty of expression and clarity of imagery, I think “eternal hotel” beats “magic rental store.”
But mull this over with me. What is happening here? And what’s happened in the five years between Robin talking about Rhapsody and Kevin Kelly talking about, um, Rhapsody that may have changed how we look at this?