popular culture: owning vs. renting

Negroponte_1I expect you remember the "Negroponte switch:" the wired shall become wireless (telephones) and the wireless shall become wired (TV). 

I have another: the things we own, we will rent, and things we rent, we will own. No, of course it isn’t as good.  But it’s moving day here at the McCracken-DeCesare and we have spend the last couple of days committing our earthly  possessions to cardboard bound by sticky tape which tape comes off the roll with a sound that resembles the torture of a raptor infant. Under the circumstances, it’s a wonder I can blog at all. I am quite certain the sky is going to darken at the next pull of the tape. 

Anyhow, when we subscribe to satellite radio and we allow this radio to supplant our standing collections of music, something interesting happens.  We have given up ownership for something closer to rental.  It is clear why we might be tempted by this shift.  Most of us have a new diversity of taste, in any one category there is often a lot of music that interests us, and the turn-over of this music is pretty rapid. 

Assuming the cost of survey and capture is for some of us prohibitive.  It’s just so much easier to let some else do it.  Yes, there is a trade off: rootedness (of the kind that comes from listening to "our favorites" many times over) vs. staying current (the demands of which now precludes even a little repetition, let alone a lot.)  Ownership is comforting but it is also expensive.

Or, put this another way.  Google has become a way of remembering and ordering the world.  It is a kind of intellectual prothesis or superstructure.  So might the rental model deliver this higher order value.  The DJ becomes our musical intelligence, now resident outside the head and our "CD collection." 

The move from ownership to rental is driven then by a simple motive: rental may be more expensive and less emotionally satisfying, but it is so much more efficient as a means of staying in touch with a dynamic culture.

But what about owning what we used to rent?  My case in point here is the sale of DVDs.  This is one of the great mysteries of contemporary culture.  Americans are buying DVDs by the millions, and by this time most of them know they are never going to watch these DVDs a second time.  But there it is: we are buying what the world makes it really easy to rent. 

It might be that we buy DVDs for the same reason we build "great rooms."  Both allow us to play out the fantasy that one day the family will all get together for a lovely evening of film watching.  Nah.  It is perhaps some measure of the extent to which movies matter to us, that we want to own a copy of some films even if we never expect to play them a second time.  In fact, does anyone watch everything in a boxed set?  Kubrick maybe.  But otherwise.  There is something about ownership here that we find deeply________.  Any and all suggestions gratefully received.  Me, I have to go back to boxing…and ducking. 

10 thoughts on “popular culture: owning vs. renting

  1. Hootsbuddy

    Is the word “unfulfilling”?

    There are two ways to use money: investing and spending.
    Investing hopes to keep it for future use, hopefully with some increase. Spending, on the other hand, pisses it away forever.
    For some people an expensive meal with a client is an investment. For others it is just another expenditure.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Not bad for moving day, Grant. Hope it goes as smoothly as possible for you and Pam.

    Here are a few more examples:

    Renting fashion handbags
    Owning party supplies (dishes, silverware)
    Renting (leasing) automobiles
    Owning books (wonder what’s happening to library lending stats)
    Renting employees (consultants, temps, outsourcing)
    Owning tuxedos
    Renting military personnel (National Guard, reserves, civilian contractors)
    Owning office equipment (copiers, shredders); remember when nobody had these?

    The trend seems stronger on the “now renting” side.

  3. Bob V

    I have several DVDs that I have not even opened.

    If I love a movie sufficiently, I want to establish a strong, unbreakable connection to it. The DVD is perfect for this. Buying it relieves me of worry. It is a task completed. The movie is now mine.

    Perhaps it is the same kind of relief someone might experience after buying life insurance. It is something one was meaning to do and is glad to have gotten out of the way.

  4. M Darcy

    I wonder if all consumption is fundamentally ‘rental’?

    In as much as ultimately, it passes – metaphorically and in some instances quite literally – through us.

    At the end of consumption we discard, upgrade, move on, or have to acquire more of the same to keep consuming.

    Is the idea of ‘ownership’ simply a useful illusion we cling to or need? A sort of mask to hide the essentially transient nature of consumption?

    For example, I purchase books to read knowing that I will not in all probablity read them again. Am I looking for some physical evidence or reassurance that the experience was not entirely transient and fleeting?

    Are we moving from ownership to rental? Or simply an accelerated rate of consumption?

    Are we witnessing paradoxical urges – at once a greater level of comfort with – or awareness of – the transient nature of consumption.

    And at the same time a greater need to somehow ‘mark’ that consumption?


  5. dilys

    As to renting rather than owning, see the new upscale vacation clubs that for $300K upfront and $15K p.a. allow one to visit grand “second homes” with no responsibility. This kind of turnkey experience IMO reflects the overloaded neurology of modern life. Reliable no-brainers are more and more inviting, which is why I think the “assemble it yourself” trend will need radical streamling.

    Especially intriguing is your toss-off of buying/creating a great room & owning DVDs as a staging ground for the “family media evening” fantasy. Surely a great many purchases are fantasy-scenario based, and most likely we soon will be able neurologically to measure and identify the contents. Probably market research a la Zaltman Metaphor Marketing already does.

    I’d wager $$$$ that most, e.g. female clothing purchases, are “wardrobe for [ ] scenario.” The next interesting question is, What percentage of those unscheduled hopeful scenarios actually materialize? Then, I’d like to see consultancies that will help make it happen rather than rely on the attenuated causality of owning something new. Transfer expenditure from “stuff” to “experience,” which is the model of the wealthy. Next, M Darcy is right, ways to “mark” that ephemeral consumption may prove important. Because like owning DVDs we don’t watch (I personally don’t), it seems important to look around the room and assemble oneself and one’s history by the assembled bricolage (‘I am the person who owns “Fight Club,” who does not own Frank Sinatra’).

    I grew up with a salon fantasy: superb conversation, fine food, witty reputation. Never happened. Now, in the tradeoffs of renovation, the cozy dining room becomes an indoor-outdoor river-rock be-fountained conservatory-office. Death of the old fantasy, new fantasy less dependent on the other ghostly dramatis personae, more responsive to actual scheduled events and measureable sensory pleasure.

    So it’s all investment. Measuring the ROI is the modern consumer’s dilemma.

  6. Grant

    Hootsbuddy, Tom, Bob V, M Darcy and Dilys. These remarks are great. Unfortunately, moving won this round, and I can’t reply to these splendid comments-or post. Sorry! More, I hope, tomorrow. Thanks, Grant

  7. CarolGee

    “There is something about ownership here that we find deeply”
    _security producing_, I say. But that is an illusion. Because I grew up in the country many miles from a store, my family had to have what we needed on hand, we thought. So hoarding got to be a habit with me. Now I have purchased/hoarded several unread books all under the category of “Simplify Your Life.” Whaddya gonna do?

  8. Matt

    Perhaps I’m an outlier. I don’t own any DVDs one can get from Netflix (I own a lot of DVDs, but none of them are in the rental market), I do habitually reread books (and make a habit of giving away to friends those that I liked but don’t intend to ever read again), and I never really had a “music collection”, so satellite radio isn’t actually a substitute for one, but rather a substitute for the inadequate choice available from terrestrial radio…especially in between major cities.

    I tend to make a different distinction…ownership is for when I know in advance and with substantial confidence exactly what I want, know that I’ll be able to get it on an ownership basis, and know that my desire for it will be more or less continuous through time. Rental is (in general) for everything else. So I own my car, my furniture and appliances, my clothes, my books, and my computers (and would own my residence if I had better credit), and rent just about everything else.

    If I watched feature films more often, I might own DVDs just for the sake of convenience…Netflix has a multi-day turnaround time and B&M video rental shops are seldom open during my prime hours.

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