Gifts Are Becoming More Immaterial

You’re just starting to enjoy the high-tech things you received as holiday gifts, so you may not have noticed something a little bit different about them. Many of the things we exchanged have less “thingness” to them.

If you were given music or movies or an eBook, there’s absolutely no thingness involved. You received a password or a link or a verbal acknowledgement that some specific string of zeroes and ones have been lined up, ready to be sent your way. Once they are recorded by your Kindle or iPod or computer, your device will not weigh even a tenth of an ounce more. You have something new, but where and what is it?

We’ve been slowly confusing ourselves about the material world for generations. If you asked 100 people what they watched on television last night, less then one of them would have given you the correct answer — “colored dots” — and that person probably wouldn’t be invited to many parties. He or she might have become a billionaire instead.

Why did Phil Knight decide to sell shoes? Why did Jeff Bezos start his empire with eBooks? How did Steve Jobs reinvent how music is played? Each had the same insight.

Almost nobody wants to wear somebody else’s shoes. Almost every shoe is bought new and discarded before it becomes old. Most (outer) clothing has a different fate. T-shirts can be stuffed into a shipping container and sorted into three sizes to clothe the Third World, but shoes have no such second life.

Let’s pause for a moment and be glad that Uncle Phil didn’t decide his fortune could be made in underwear.

Bezos started his empire selling books, because they have more value than weight, but he found a fly in his ointment. The value of a good book makes users want to share it. He watched competitors sell a used book two or three times, earning a commission on each sale.

Bezos found a way to make books weigh even less without diminishing their value. He created an electronic reader, so customers could read the weightless books he sold them. But it doesn’t stop there. Or, rather, it does. By making books electronic, Bezos could control what happens after readers have finished a book. Nothing. An eBook cannot be shared, without giving your eBook reader to a new user. Even then, it may violate the terms of service.

We grew up sharing music and movies, thanks to easy-to-use cassette tapes. The quality diminished with each copy, so the creative industries mostly turned a blind eye. But then came digital copies on computers and sharing exploded. A copy was as good as the original, but without the cost.

Apple might have jumped into the music business sooner, but it had to iron out a little problem first. Apple Computer in its early days agreed not to enter the music business, preventing any confusion between the new computer company and Apple Corps, the music production company owned by The Beatles.

Once that agreement was renegotiated, Apple began selling songs for 99 cents. Apple kept a commission on each copy and shut down the secondary market of used songs and movies.

But now the non-thingness of things has taken another leap. Imagine you unwrapped a Tesla on Christmas morning. What did you get — really?

Think back to early September. Elon Musk and other Tesla titans watched the panic as Florida residents packed the highways, hoping to evade Hurricane Irma. After hours of inching along, cars became stranded beside the road, adding to the panic.

So Tesla, in an act of benevolence, sent all its Florida cars an over-air software patch, giving them access to the premium extended battery package. The boost got more drivers to safety, but it also tore a curtain away. Tesla’s software cripples performance, unless buyers pay a premium.

Apple was outed just last month for doing the same thing. Software is being designed to control and strategically limit the hardware we thought we were buying. Knowing that is enough to make you want to turn out the lights and stare at a bunch of colored dots all evening.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.