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The Goodly Mist
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Period Pieces

May 8, 2012

I have been thinking a lot recently about technology, and our acquisition of it. Technology is, quite rightly, an expensive purchase; just to come close to constructing a calculator requires hundreds of transmuted meteorite shards that are scraped off the inside window of the Earth. They require factories of technology to produce, to pulverize and liquefy in order to store information or output light. Technology changes daily, and, for the most part, our choice to change with it remains a choice. If I am a rich man, I may choose to upgrade my technology every time something new is released, and discard or recycle that which I used before. If I am poor, or merely comfortable, I may wait several consumer generations before buying again. I may also be an archaist, or a luddite, or anything in between the polarities, and buy once and wish to use forever. I may be content to only give the capitalist contract a cursory glance, and decide that I need nothing more.

This contract simmers down to this particulate:

“If you pay us money for an object that is advertised as a purchasable product, or an easily defined experience, that experience or object belongs to you, within the confines of common sense and ability. You may use it as you see fit within the bounds of already-defined law, and it remains yours until you sell it, discard it, or die, in which case it passes on to your descendants, until it crumbles into dust or is otherwise obliterated.”

As far as I can tell, this is the basis of all modern commerce. Some services and experiences may be defined more nebulously, but this is the crux of it. One may also hire, or rent, or license, or borrow, or interact with objects in many other ways. But, for an intelligent person, your relationship with your object is defined prior to the choice. You know, or can divine, in advance, whether you are hiring or buying.

This, it seems, is not a given anymore.

I am not actually referring to digital products which provide no concrete, ad infinitum link from consumer to product, like Kindle purchases that can be wiped remotely or Steam libraries that can only groan silently with weight and expense, and may, in fact, be wiped at any point and for any reason, infractious or not. These issues have already been raised, by many, and I for the most part agree with them, but there is a different paradigm for immaterial purchases; the practicalities of storage and the easily-broken promises of “forever-access”.

I am referring to good old-fashioned hardware. Those things that can be grasped, picked up in a car, and sit in the corner of a living room until the curtains glow with far-off oil-fires and the whoop of marauders pound at the door. Computer hardware is caught in an amphibian conundrum; its physical shell fulfills all of the tenets of the above consumer agreement, and is purchased with the ineffable promise of continual, permanent ownership. However, its blood is software, the cloud-like, undefined anti-stuff of which I talked in the above paragraph. The shell without the blood is nothing at all. The old Apple 2s and Valve, owners of the Steam platform, to realistically honour a refund of every transaction made if their servers were wiped. And their EULA protects them against such an obligation. And so we enter in this argument that we now own nothing, but pay the same fees as we do to own to instead license, with added convenience. If the prices were different, this would make sense. But they do not. The capitalist contract is being used incorrectly.

I am not sure if something needs to change legislatively, or if this instead requires a change in outlook. People need to realise the relationship to what they are buying, and how this may change in the future. That shiny computer you buy today will degrade, and gather dust and jam-prints and will need cleaning and maintenance like anything else; but those theoretical spaces that exist within them, and alongside them, in an unknown dimension, sit thrumming silently, waiting for the light to switch off. That computer is only a rental, no matter how much you paid for it.