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Digital Life

Is ownership of physical objects a thing of the past?

In 1985 Madonna sang, "We are living in a material world." The song "Material Girl" became a big hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song certainly seemed apt for the 1980s, a time associated with capitalism and consumption. But times change.

A recent editorial at Salon by Lee Peterson of WD Partners suggests that we are now living in an age of "dematerialization," as in, a world where what you "own" often doesn't take a physical form.

This trend, as cited in the article, is particularly endemic to younger people, for whom music, books, and other media mostly take an electronic form and are downloaded to devices such as iPads, Kindles, and smartphones.

Peterson notes that this is a distinct turn away from the consumer culture of the past, citing the popularity of shopping malls in the 1980s. He notes that it's now more likely that young people will purchase individual items that appeal specifically to them, and will derive pleasure from having things, as opposed to desiring them for status-based reasons.

The editorial also cites a piece from the Journal of Consumer Research from May 2013 that proposes that digital purchasing has led to re-evaluation of the 1988 concept of the "extended self," the idea that people on some level regard their physical possessions as part of themselves. Now, the trend seems to be toward "reembodiment" -- using media to explore different aspects of oneself, through such resources as different online avatars and "skins."

There are some tough questions raised by these concepts, though. While material goods are hardly the best way to define yourself, "reembodiment" suggests that electronic media can be used to avoid defining yourself through the creation of artificial identities -- a process that can sometimes prove harmful.

In addition, there are issues of the transient nature of electronic media, specifically when it comes to Digital Rights Management or DRM. As popular as iTunes is, there's always been the question of how many billions of dollars worth of music, movies, and TV shows would vanish if it went away tomorrow. If that sounds far-fetched, consider the case of J-Manga, an online seller of Japanese comics that went under earlier this year...and erased all purchased comics from customers' readers in the process.

It's one thing to define yourself by what you own -- but it's another when you don't actually "own" what you own.

As with all technological and social trends, this issue is one that's continually evolving. And there's valid arguments on both sides. Sure, it's a better world when you only purchase things that interest you specifically, and not because you're caught in a group mentality. On the other hand, just remember this: if there's ever a long-term blackout, that paperback book you have is going to be a lot more useful for keeping you entertained than your Kindle.

Photo: Martin Cathrae