Things not Owned

The transfusion of physical and digital technologies has held a number of well documented negative implications for consumer societies: digital absorption, the rise of throwaway consumerism, etc. But there is one such negative implication that is, in my eyes, unjustly, and congruently, dangerously overlooked, when examining this transfusion: the decline of ownership.

Physically, this decline, and, as I see it, devolution, is best embodied by the aforementioned idea of throwaway culture. When a shiny new phone comes out once a year, it’s easy to toss the old one to the side in favor of the new. The most dangerous implications of this attitude are usually seen to be the environmental ones, what with the rise of e-waste perpetuated by said culture. But I feel like this entirely-valid environmental concern often blinds us to an equally-valid albeit less tangible societal one.

The trend of analog to digital societal conversion is entirely inversely proportional to man’s ownership of things. Where once, say 20 years ago, we could definitively say that we owned a large number of the things that we used and possessed, outside of the work environment perhaps, that number of things is likely significantly decreased today. Moreover, the line between what is definitively owned and what is just “possessed” is more blurred than other before.

But in some cases, this can be seen as a good thing. For example, the rise of streaming services for content like music, movies, tv shows, books, and, recently, video games is, in the eyes of many, myself included, vastly superior to having to purchase single songs, games, or movies individually, for the cost saving measures and smoother user experience afforded alone. And that’s what makes this tricky.

This change, like the microcosm of the digital revolution that it is, holds what can be seen as both good and bad implications, and it’s those bad implications that push me to write this post, two iterations of those bad implications in particular: the implications for computational hardware.
The negative implications these changes hold for computational hardware are more user experience related than anything else, and thus, more negative cultural implications than anything else. In a world where computational abilities and features get exponentially more powerful every year, and, as such, we feel compelled to upgrade our computers, phones, tablets, and now watches, it’s harder than ever before to establish connections with these devices, even though we use them so much, perhaps more than anything else, in a given day. And I feel like this isn’t stressed enough.

To me, a large part of what makes a design (design used here as a word that encompasses both the aesthetic and afforded functionality of a given product) a great one is the room for connection to the user it affords. Great designers have connections to their designs, a sort of love perhaps best summed up by the Hindu idea of prasāda (the ability to imbue love and passion into something, typically food but it can apply to anything really) in light of a similar word in the English language. It’s not unlike a parent imbuing their spirit, and likewise their wisdom and views, into their children, influencing them and changing the way they interact with others in the process. I also believe it to be what makes abstract art so appealing to people. In pieces of abstract art, there are these connections, loose ends perhaps, built into them that people pick up on, allowing them to relate with and project their ideas and emotions onto such them in doing so.

Only the best designs can contain these connections and the passion that they represent, and, inversely these connections are required in designing (once again used in a holistic sense here) the best possible product.

What I’m getting to is my belief that products that are intentionally designed with a sort of shelf life, as most consumer electronics are, cannot possibly be imbued with a sense of love, as they are not designed to last, to spark long-lasting joy and inspiration, and instead are seemingly intended to spark a manufactured finity of joy and inspiration, lasting only until the new model comes out. Simply put, products designed as purveyors of a throwaway culture are designed without the connectors required for their users to form solid relationships with them.

Allow me to pose the question: Do you love your phone, not the idea of your phone, or what it affords you or how it possesses you but instead what it actually is, how you possess it?

The answer is likely no.

Because, like in any shallow person or thing, the capacity for a relationship is simply not there.

And the real danger of this reality is intensified with the shear prevalence of electronically enhanced products. It seems that microprocessors, screens, and hard drives are in half of the things in our homes these days, and thus, with most of those things falling victim to the susceptibility of throwaway-ability that containing these various electronic components implies, that same anti-affordance (lack of capacity) for the formation of a relationship exists.

But I think we desire these relationships with our devices, we want this higher level of design. I think that people’s interest in collecting things like cars, watches, and guitars, among others, really speaks for this. But this attachment shouldn’t be so cost prohibitive. For the price we pay for our electronics these days, we should be attaining this higher level of design.

And while it would seem that my zen buddhist influences, influences that stress detachment and letting go, would contradict with this seemingly materialist ideology, I don’t think that’s the case. I find it much more productive and zen-like to build something with love and passion, love and passion that can be imbued in that thing and released and shared with its users upon use. It’s much better to make one great thing that lasts a lifetime than to build a few ok things that last a few years.

And I think the apparent rejection of this in the hardware industry is best indicated by the ideology that good design is summed up by putting the little things, elements that spark tiny amounts of joy periodically, into a design, and not building a good overall design and interaction process. And while I think that, yes, this is a key component to a good overall design, building such a good overall design and interaction process, one that must last and contain passion, is just as important – the two are not mutually exclusive.

To conclude to design something well is to design something that lasts, to design something that is made to last. Think about a company’s logo, a good one, like Apple, Nike, or Starbucks. Why did they come to mind? Why are the successful?

Because they were designed to last, and they have.

Good design (for the final time, design encompassing every aspect of the user experience) is good design now and good design a lifetime from now. Without that longevity, was it ever a good design at all.

I think not.

“Good design is long-lasting”
-Dieter Rams


  1. Well said, and I agree. Even architecture is different now, built for speed and frugality (like every glass-faced skyscraper growing like bamboo in the city)
    rather than as a long lasting and functional work of art (like Grand Central Station or the Empire State Building).

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