Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Paradigm Shift

Imagine this, if you will.

You fly into a city on the other side of the country. At home you drive a fairly standard late-model sedan, and when you arrive at the airport, you walk over to the rental lot and the car you requested is waiting - the same make and model as your own car. You walk up to it, and as you approach the door, the car gets the signal telling it to unlock the door.

You throw your luggage in the back, and hop into the driver’s seat. The phone in your pocket - which a few seconds ago acted as a remote key for the doors - uploads your personal settings to the onboard computer. The seat, steering wheel and mirrors adjust automatically to your preferences. The aircon and the radio are set how you like them, and if you don’t want to listen to the radio, your mp3 playlist is waiting for the command to pick up where you left off listening on the plane.

As your GPS directs you to your hotel - having received this information from your phone as well - it occurs to you. On every functional level, you are now driving your own car. The fact that it’s made of different atoms is really neither here nor there - in every way that matters, it’s identical.

It’s a theme that crops up a bit in my writing, I know, but it seems to me that the vast majority of society’s problems are based on our extreme materialism. Our society and our economy are both based explicitly on the idea that the best way for us to be happy and healthy is to get more stuff - to have the freedom to buy the stuff we want, to have the means to buy it, and so on.

To put it bluntly, I completely disagree with this notion and I plan to refute it in detail in the near future (it might take a while. It’s, um, rather involved). But even accepting that we need these material possessions to live fulfilled lives, it’s becoming more and more apparent that we can challenge our current notions of ownership without it much affecting the joy we get from the objects.

Because, your first reaction to the above scenario is probably along the lines of - “Awesome, I can basically have my own car when I’m on holiday!” - but the logical progression is “If I can do that, do I really need my own car when I’m at home?” If you can have the experience of owning a car without actually owning it, what’s the incentive to buy it?

Everything I described is technically possible right now, and you’ll find disjointed bits and pieces of them in real-world applications - for example, high-end cars do have the seat-position memory I described and will save multiple settings for, say, a husband and wife. No such integrated commercial product exists right now, but my point is, we don’t really need to be squinting into the distant future to see this kind of thing - it’d be expensive, but we could do it today.

And it’s not just the technology, either - the social will is there to do it today. Just look at Rachel Botsman’s TEDx talk on the various sharing programs that are already in place, and how fast it’s growing:

(The whole thing is definitely worth watching but you can get the gist from the first 5 minutes)

It goes well beyond cars, too. It’s a function of mass-production in general; okay, so you love your new dress, but do you really love it any more than the identical one next to it on the rack? If you lost all your clothes in a fire, assuming your wardrobe was fairly new, you could literally recreate your entire wardrobe out of identical items. Similarly, I really love my new smartphone. But if I were to lose it or break it, you know what I’d do? I’d get the insurance money, buy a new one, and retrieve all my data from the cloud - my phone syncs all its data to Google’s servers every day or so. Functionally, my new phone would be identical to my old one.

When it comes to data, this sort of thing is already taking off. In the relatively near future, Google will launch its Chrome operating system, which will come bundled with laptops that are pretty light on processing power and hard drive space - it will make heavy use of the cloud (that is, a number of server farms around the world) to do its work and store its data remotely. The laptop is just a means of access, which means you can pick up another Chrome laptop, log in, and treat that laptop as your own - basically the way we’ve been doing things like Hotmail for years, but on a much larger scale. Like with the car, the laptop is just a shell you temporarily inhabit.

There are some caveats. It doesn’t work for everything - for example, the car thing doesn’t work too well for me because I am a car person; to me, my car isn’t just a mode of transportation, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s not a stock-standard family sedan, it’s a customised, modified sports car (albeit a cheap and battle-scarred one). So it’s going to be pretty hard to satisfy me with that sort of thing. But clothes? They aren’t important to me - they’re just something to prevent nakedness, so they’re as interchangeable to me as the car would be to most people. There is always going to be a niche market for the things people love, but this is definitely a good thing - mass-produced consumerism has made individuality difficult, and I think it’s something we should foster.

The other thing is, it’s not one of those “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” type of ideas. This kind of thing takes massive amounts of infrastructure and very advanced technology to implement, so it couldn’t have worked before now - and it’ll be a million times easier to get off the ground in urban locations, where the population density is high, than in more sparsely-populated areas, for basically the same reason.

It has the same kinds of problems as public transport - which is another example of something that’s steadily growing and should continue to do so. It also faces similar bureaucratic hurdles to public transport - much like how the current level of oil company influence is severely hindering High Speed Rail in the US, the current telco situation in Australia will make cloud computing of all kinds difficult. If everything is taking place remotely, you don’t need much disk space or processing power - but you need to transmit a hell of a lot of data, which in Australia is currently neither fast nor cheap.

But for the most part - for the things we have for purely utilitarian reasons - we really don’t need such rigid, individual ownership. As Botsman points out, a drill is sitting idle for most of its life, so it might as well be shared amongst a large group of people. Because the benefit of all this, aside from saving money for the users, is that it saves resources - we don’t need to build as many copies of various objects, so as a race we consume less of the planet’s finite resources.

The implications of this movement could be world-changing, if we really embrace it. I think it’ll happen organically, to a certain extent, but we really need to interrogate our notions of ownership and shrug off the petty, niggling need to own physical things, if we want this to reach its full potential. I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a genuinely exciting time to be alive.

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