Why do people own things?

A loyal MR reader asks:

This is related to a recent post and something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I pack up my house to move: Why do we buy books and videos?  Doesn’t it make much more sense to outsource their storage to libraries and video stores or services like Netflix?

I have an intrinsic desire to collect and flood my house with nuggets of joy (not Natasha’s phrase), but that doesn’t explain everyone.  Often people own books and DVDs for reasons of identity and self-expression; that is why iTunes outcompeted Rhapsody, even though the latter in some ways offered a better deal.  Ownership, especially of the non-digital kind, also allows you to lend out, to send to friends, and to show off.  The ownership puzzle is related to the "why do we buy mostly new music" puzzle.

It makes the most sense to own songs and CDs, if only because the desire to hear them is more spontaneous, and renting them is harder.  The costs of renting are falling, but the costs of personal storage are falling too, as houses become larger.  The mail isn’t getting much quicker, but the demand for immediacy is growing.  Ownership remains robust.

#3 in a series of 50.


#3 is not any series of 50 I know about.

I'm with Bill. Without all our stuff, how could we prove our value and identity. Also, I sellers would rather sell than rent. It's just easier for them and they can charge more.

I think most people strike a healthy combination between "library"-style media and ownership depending on the use. For example, I own my favorite movies because if on a whim I decide I want to "watch a movie," one of them will likely make me happy immediately. I own books that I've felt the need to highlight in or that I reference in conversations with others, in writing, etc. There's also a personal satisfaction that comes from browsing my bookshelf.
That being said, I will always have a use for Netflix or a library for research, for reading or viewing something I'm not sure I'll like, etc.

"Often people own books and DVDs for reasons of identity and self-expression [...]" this is certainly true for tangible things, although music has already substantively moved to hard drives and movies are heading in that direction, so it may not be true in the indefinite future.

Still, for now, the identity issue is important: when people walk into my apartment, they judge me in part based on what I have -- as I do of others. So when they see bookshelves, they know not only that I like to read, but they also learn part of my intellectual history and development through knowledge. Incidentally, one reason I write a book blog is similar to the reason I like to own books.

There are also additional costs to renting books that the original reader implicitly ignores when he writes, "Doesn't it make much more sense to outsource their storage to libraries and video stores or services like Netflix?" Going to the library incurs time costs (to go there and to come back), as does having to wait for newer or more popular books, as does the potential for late fees. Compared to ordering off Amazon, it becomes inefficient in that respect unless one derives substantial benefits from, say, browsing. I also tend to reread good books and lend them out to friends.

Eventually the convenience of books on hard drives will win over books on paper, and I look forward to that day if for no other reason than because moving will be much easier. But that day appears far off.

It is a control issue. Owning a book or DVD gives others (and possibly yourself) the impression that you are in control of the item. You can decide to read the book or watch the movie when you want too. You can decide to lend it out. You can even decide to sell it. Having to deal with a library or netflix means that you are forfeiting some control and that you have to deal with the library's or Netflix's rules.

I've stopped buying DVDs since joining Netflix.

I do still buy current TV shows from iTunes when I really like the series and want to keep up and not wait for next year's DVD set. . .

Why do people own stolen Picassos?

I agree with many of the points made above, ie signaling, ability to lend, etc.

Also, over the last few decades the costs of reproducing and shipping media has probably gone down; a movie is certainly cheaper than it was 20 years ago, and an album probably is as well.

Over the last few years the value of my time has certainly gone up.

Going to the library means walking all the way over to 5th and 42nd, planning ahead to get there when the library is open, figuring out how to get a card, hoping that I can get one of the few copies of "Fooled By Randomness" in the system.

Buying it on Amazon means about 30 seconds online after lunch.

Time is irreplaceable. But as far as money goes, we'll just make more.*

Also for me is the sense of duty. Maybe its a defect of my personality, but I feel bad if I bend the pages of a library book when I'm on the subway. If I own it, who cares if I spill coffee on my book? That peace of mind is worth something to me.

*going to the library is itself a fun experience once in a while, but eventually becomes a chore.

Also, the library gets angry when I write in their books.

Public libraries in my area in generally do not stock the books I would like to (re-)read. Their space is also limited, they will have to cater to the lowest common denominator. I also think that people like to emulate other people. That once you see someone having a DVD collection, you want one yourself as well. For some people such conformity is an issue, for others it is not.

A variation on Aaron's comment:

"Anything you can't walk away from, owns you."

I would think that this relates to the idea of personal utility and value. I seem to remember learning that what we consume is utility and that there are three types of utility: form, place and time. Form utility meaning that the item consumed has a form we find useful; place utility that is available at a place we find useful; and time utility means it's available when we find it useful.

As a collector of books, I don't particularly care whether anyone else sees my books. I find value in the place and time utility, i.e. the specific books are available to me whenever I want to use them in a place that is most convenient. And value being subjective, it would explain why some people collect and some don't. The collectors just place a higher value (read satisfaction) on having the times when and where it is most convenient.

Isn't ownership a hedge against:

1) The possible later unavailability for rental of culture that we judge ourselves likely to wish to consume again in the future;
2) Possible exposure to arbitrary increases in rents for culture that we judge ourselves likely to consume regularly?

Libraries seem to me to offer an interesting example of this when it comes to digitized archives. Do you want to buy that archive at high cost, or rent it annually at low cost? Sounds like the second option is a good idea *until* you think about the vulnerabilities in entails. If the total integrity of your research resources depends on access to that archive, then renting exposes you to a high risk.

So I tend to want to own books because of the danger of books going out of print and being difficult to rent or borrow at a later date as a result. The same danger may not apply to DVDs, but I do tend to infer its possibility from my experience of books. On the other hand, I tend to concentrate my DVD ownership on things I intend to watch many times, or things that I want to watch in such a way as I might incur very high inconvenience from repeatedly renting them. (E.g., a whole series of the Sopranos, etc.)

"but the costs of personal storage are falling too, as houses become larger"

In which cities is a square foot of house cheaper than it was a decade ago?

I do agree that's these possessions may seem to have some value to us and can explain our identity. I also understand that it is a whole lot easier to buy a movie or a cd for one flat price instead of going to the movie store every weekend and having to rent a movie. Also you have that movie or cd for the rest of your life (or until you get rid of it) and you can go back and watch it at you pleasure. But I do see where itunes and other downloading features could come in hand. For those you pay one price and download as much as you want I think. I know when I go buy a cd from the store, a lot of the songs on the cd I would rather not here. It's those songs that are popular and that I actually like.

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