You Don’t Actually Own Your Data and Devices

Companies go to great lengths to lock us out from our own stuff

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Spiritedness, then, may be allied with a spirit of inquiry, through a desire to be master of one’s own stuff. It is the prideful basis of self-reliance.

—Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

One of the contradictions of our age is that while the Internet increasingly makes all kinds of information available, many devices and services are increasingly including less accessibility as a feature. For every Wikipedia that you can edit, there are a thousand devices and appliances that are manufactured to discourage tampering. We like to think the world is becoming an open access and open content nirvana with information available to all, but the reality is that more and more knowledge is hiding behind paywalls and similar closed access barriers (and even super closed access channels, which make info available only through limited or hidden outlets).

We live in a renter society where we prefer to pay a monthly fee to use something for a short while and then move on when a new version comes along. Even the stuff we think we own is really not ours, the best example being all those ostensibly purchased e-books that it turns out you actually only rent and that can be undownloaded (that is, yanked from your e-reader) without warning. If this sounds fanciful, note that a few years back Amazon famously deleted George Orwell’s books from customers’ Kindles due to a digital rights management kerfuffle.

Even the things we do own don’t last very long because we also live in a throwaway society. When something breaks, we’d rather toss it in the trash than get it fixed. The philosopher Albert Borgmann calls this disposable reality, one of the characteristics of which is the emphasis on consumption of things rather than engagement with things.

Although a few years ago I noted a resurgence of the DIY movement in this column (“The Hobbyist Renaissance,” IEEE Spectrum, June 2007), the reality is that most people prefer to delegate the “doing” part to professionals. At best, a person might subscribe to BIY—buy-it-yourself—and purchase the materials required for a repair or renovation (while still relying on a tradesperson or other pro to perform the job). People lack—and perhaps more important, no longer value—the simple pleasures and rewards of manual competence. They’d prefer to be distraction addicts who barely notice the devices they use, rather than attempt the focal practice of actually engaging with those devices (say, by repairing or maintaining them, or by making something rather than merely using something). They’d prefer to live in a disposable society where there’s only a superficial interaction with devices, rather than living in a commanding reality where there’s a true sense of engagement with things.

However, even for those of us who do truly enjoy making and maintaining and repairing our things, performing those tasks is becoming more difficult because manufacturers are all too often keeping the innards of their devices hidden and inaccessible. This creeping concealedness comes in the form of cases that are tamper-resistant, parts that are not user-installable, and devices that are low on the repairability scale. The result is a culture of learned helplessness where, faced with innovations such as proprietary pentalobe screws and tamperproof exteriors, we throw up our hands and then throw out the thing we can no longer open, let alone fix.

Given these obstacles, how do we foster a sense of self-reliance? How can we have a relationship with our devices that is meaningful and hands-on rather than superficial and hands-off? Perhaps it’s time for a new form of device paradigm where the features we seek in the things we buy aren’t fashionable colors or sleek packaging but repairable components and openable cases. Through such an engaged consumerism we might once again become masters of our own stuff.

This article appears in the June 2016 print issue as “Are You Master of Your Own Stuff?”

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