When Netflix and Spotify first emerged, my barely post-adolescent self was ecstatic — a low-cost way to binge on music and movies. I could fill all those empty hours and late nights with a seemingly endless stream of content, a much-needed diversion from perusing the DVD racks at home for something I hadn’t seen a million times. $10 was throwaway Starbucks money for any given week and it gave me access to more music than god could have possibly intended. The future was bright — I could subscribe my way past boredom, fill my ears to the brim with old and new, all without putting pants on.
Of course, once such things caught on, it wasn’t long before companies and industry “disruptors” would join in the profitable fun: why buy Microsoft Office for hundreds, when you could rent it for a few bucks a month? Troubled by your worn-out razor that you keep forgetting to replace?: Dollar Shave Club. Want more books without giving up shelf space?: Kindle Unlimited rivals the Library of Congress. The industry didn’t just expand, it exploded. According to Zoura, the leading subscription management platform provider, from 2012 to 2018, the subscription business has seen global sales growth of over 300 percent, revenues that grew five times faster than the S&P 500, and generally just destroyed any other GDP category.
Despite its novelty, the subscription model is an old idea with a fresh coat of paint — magazines, book clubs, cable TV, and phone service. They’ve generally fallen into two categories — those that give you a physical (albeit typically short-lived) product like razors, and those that give you something intangible, tied up in the entangled web of intellectual property and the adjacent — music, movies, and inscrutable word processing software. Subscriptions for physical products are more gimmicky than they are re-defining, a way of speeding up planned obsolesce with cheap stuff. But unabashed disposal culture and the growth of massive material waste is sooooo early 2000s. The far more interesting and inviting are the latter, those where one never actually owns anything at all.
These services are everywhere these days. In my inbox, I currently have offers for 40 percent off of an annual Evernote subscription. Same goes for Grammarly Premium. Google has been trying to sell me on more Drive space for years. In order to stay up on the cross-section of cultural phenomenons, one has to juggle subscriptions to HBO, Hulu Plus, Disney+, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, to name a few. I have lost count (and now, even awareness) of the sheer quantity of 7-day trial opportunities I’ve ignored. Which is not to say there haven’t been times where I’ve considered paying for some of these — $10 bucks here for Kindle Unlimited or $7 there for Evernote premium. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could search the contents of your saved PDFs right from Evernote rather than expending two more clicks to open and then search them? How on earth am I going to stay culturally relevant without watching the Mandalorian? Can I even conceive of myself as educated without having an endless digital library of books that I won’t read, just like the ones that adorn my shelves now?
The subscription unicorn has a deceptively simple argument — borrow things cheaply while you need them, then dump when you don’t. It’s the tech equivalent of ritual narcissistic serial dating (speaking of, there’s a subscription for that). Many an analyst laud this turn, this transition from ownership to “usership”, as the best thing since before the existence of sliced bread that one could get delivered, the same-day, while standing in an empty pantry. It “frees” us from the burden of ownership, a means of people reducing all the stuff in their lives. Not just great, but inevitable — “If you’re not shifting to this business model now,” says Tien Tzuo, founder of Zoura, “chances are that in a few years you might not have any business left to shift.” This model, he says, can even be married between physical and digital products. Fender Play now offers online lessons for $9.99 a month. “Ownership,” says Tzuo, “is dead.”
The obvious outcome of the death of ownership is that, well, you don’t own anything. I cannot transfer or easily lend out the album I’ve been bopping to on Spotify, nor can I re-gift the online guitar lessons the way I could the poorly formatted lesson book and CD that some well-intentioned relative bought me for Christmas years ago. If I stop paying for Kindle Unlimited after 5 years, I don’t have $600 dollars of unread books lying around. But is the end of some of this clutter and the easing of these burdens really so bad? For purposes of pointless materialism (in the coveting sense of the word), maybe not. But there is a far more pressing question of where ownership goes after it departs everyday people. It’s not gone, just increasingly consolidated into the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people.
Marx long ago recognized that questions of political and economic power are indivisible. One who controls the economic structure can bend the political order to serve self and the continued control of the economic structure. The move to usership, to becoming renters of all of life’s day-to-day things — cars, technology, or even food — ensures that the means of production and increasingly, even the things produced, stay in the hands of the few. It’s more apocalyptic than the fact that I won’t be able to buy used books and CDs, or get last year’s Xbox One games on the cheap much longer (though these definitely feel close to world-ending). There is nothing magical about ownership itself. The deeper problem with the transition to usership in the age of repackaging capitalism lies in its increasing gap between those who use the things and those who control the things. Where one once had some tight, but existing wiggle room for “fair use” of books or Microsoft Office, the usership state is one of sealing up both access and control to these products, contingent on one’s ability to pay whatever premium the holder demands in perpetuity, on whatever terms (always subject to change at whim) Microsoft or Adobe want. Despite the cheapness of this increased number of services, they leave the working person with even less than she once had, turning over both money and control one subscription at a time. And in many cases, doing so happily (I mean, baby Yoda is adorable).
“But!” I can hear the free-market zealots squeal, “there are so many ‘freeware’ versions of these services and after all, if the hand of the market shifted demand towards usership over ownership, who are we to ask? If you don’t need or can’t afford the stuff, by all means, don’t get it. Ours is not to question, but to pay and subscribe.”
A word on ‘freeware’ like Evernote and Google Drive — sure, these services are offering you something, but it isn’t for nothing. If they aren’t abusing your personal data and use statistics at a breakneck pace or selling it off to be manipulated somewhere else, the freemium model nevertheless has the intent of slowly but surely sucking you into a premium service. In Evernote’s case, the longer one uses the service, the more likely one is to start paying for it. And the longer you pay for it, the easier it is to stay stuck when the company, say, raises the price by 40 percent (prior generations will recognize similar pseudo-extortionary schemes from the cable TV era). It’s a kind of soft propaganda war, warming you up to becoming a user, a gateway subscription, if you will. With these small prices and “free” options, capitalists are either making the new, increasingly demanding bloodletting devices more palatable or hoping to woo a few more passersby with some samples.
And to answer the zealous subscription champions, one can indeed go on living without cheap, nearly limitless entertainment or the ability to store all those extra pictures of food and your dopey cat online. But this model involves more than just blaring Billie Elish on repeat. In October of 2018, Adobe cut off all of its subscription users in Venezuela to comply with U.S. sanctions. This wasn’t just disastrous for your coffee-shop freelancer, but also for NGOs or independent media outlets who were suddenly devoid of one of the more powerful tools available to them, with no recourse. Monsanto has been suing farmers into oblivion for trying to reuse and replant seeds rather than buying them anew year after year from the corporation. And so far, they’ve been very successful. For now, I can live without Netflix and Microsoft, but what happens if the Monsanto approach gets passed on to the other things that sustain life?
Of course, Monsanto, et al., argue that money drives innovation and patent protection is the only means of ensuring that it continues. Capitalists pulled a fast one here. They have taken what is quintessentially a socialist concept — shared costs and public resources to develop a shared benefit — and contorted it beyond recognition and reach of a democratic society. The usership model possesses many of the same likenesses of say, a library. You pay as a part of a community of other payers and users, and to develop, access, and maintain a communal benefit. A crowd-funding, if you will, of knowledge and entertainment. Yet, there is a glaring difference between the two — the library exists for the benefit of the community who contribute to and sustain it; Evernote and Monsanto for themselves and their investors. The subscriptioning of life is a truly bold form of rent-seeking behavior. One that extends the possibility of a slow and subtle means of corporate privatizing of what’s left of the commons. Evernote and many other technologies often draw upon open-source code to create their products. Monsanto (together with the two other giants that control over half of the world’s seed market) has taken a centuries-old product of nature and public-sector breeding efforts and managed to privatize it on an unprecedented scale. Again, there is nothing inherently righteous about ownership, save that in the material world we live in, it isn’t just a means of control. It is the means.
But despair not! As capitalism is want to do, the crowd-funding of private accumulation has opened the door to the possibility of a crowd-sourced world. The demand for the use of collective resources that are then leveraged and used to expand technologies can be turned for the benefit of all rather than at their expense. The possibility of a justifiable collective future awaits. If only we can be bothered to stop watching Stranger Things long enough to duck death by subscription.