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Why both More Property and Less Property are Good.

Is a world without property utopian or dystopian? Both sci-fi and academic1 projections, or maybe hallucinations, of a property-less world exist.

Going propertyless could be the new way of sustaining our physical environment. It could throw off the shackles of capitalism to work in a new harmony with fellow citizens of the planet. Or perhaps it’s a way the overlords of business will seize complete control of all consumers, bending them to the firm’s ultimate goal of ultimate profitability.

Some examples of a life where people own far fewer things:

=> You need a car today, I need one tomorrow, another guy is going to the airport on Thursday to pick up his visiting MIL. We all use the same vehicle. Insured by a service. Maintained by a service. Organized and distributed by a service. Who needs to own a car? 

=> If you don’t want to drive, there’s ride-hailing services (Uber or Lyft), or various bikes, scooters, self-propelled or battery-enabled, wheeled creations available on busy streets for the borrowing by the app-enabled.

=> A similar idea idea supports homes shares (AirBNB on steroids), carpets (Interface), clothes (Rent the Runway), office space (WeWork and rivals such as Regus), and much more, that already exist or could.

This is the beautiful sharing economy. Eliminates waste. Better for the environment. Convenient. Leaves consumerism in the dust as a way of life. And perhaps best of all, not your Mother’s/Father’s/some_previous_generation’s lifestyle. Most of it is facilitated by digital technologies, and the shifts in attitudes brought on by models based on digital technologies

I’m not ready to embrace ownershiplessness, but I like and respect turning the existing system on its head and disrupting a whole bunch of industries. You might argue that even though consumers don’t own things, someone still does. This someone might be an individual consumer or a corporation. True, but the total number of things on the planet, and therefore in the landfill later, would be much less. Yet, the number of people who could use things would increase, making life more accessible to a larger segment of the population.

I attended an event headlined ‘the end of private property’. To my dismay, the premise was not to celebrate the end of ownership but to reassure the listeners that, in fact, all this new-fangled stuff created with digital media has NOT abolished traditional property rights. Instead, property rights, as a fundamental part of our economic and social systems, work just fine for NFT’s, digitally hosted events etc. 

As evidence of the sustainability of property rights, it took classically slow regulators mere months to come up with rough guidelines for intellectual property rights in the output of generative AI, including acknowledging the rights of the owners of the input. It may not be all clarified yet, but many are working on it. AI might disrupt a number of things, but it isn’t going to find its fortune in creating works based on the intellectual property of humans. 

At this event, the academic presenters did cover valid reasons we have property rights, which I believe rests in basic human instincts to feel secure and safe. Most people find solstice in their homes, some in their cars. We have pride of ownership and upkeep of our belongings. 

There is a reason ‘taking ownership’ of something has significant meaning in current-speak. When we own things, we take responsibility. We increase our attention and care for them. Things we own are incorporated into our personal value (and I mean value in the broadest sense, not just financial, but self-esteem, ability to share, pride of accomplishment etc). 

So, here I am, both inside and outside the box, with my cat. Is private property increasing or decreasing as we enter a second major wave of digital technology innovation? 

Granted, it is different applications of the technology that lead to the increasing property rights (more avenues for creativity) or decreasing property rights (two-sided platforms that unite sharers in the sharing economy). Rather than being about the technology though, is it simply about being human? 

Both property and working together are about being human. We relish our property, our safe spaces and the things we’ve created. So long live property rights. And we are social, seeking ways to better our lives together. If we can do that, and protect the collective property we are responsible for (i.e. the earth) by owning fewer things because we share what we have with our fellow citizens, then down with property.

Property is dead. Long live property.

1 By academic, I mean biz school academic, which therefore includes thinking about the next new business model.

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