I surround myself with a lot of things. In my case, it’s media of all kinds, books, games, CDs, DVDs, graphic novels, manga and comic books (Yes, I’m a geek, hadn’t you noticed?). In addition to my physical material possessions I have a vast digital library of eBooks, MP3 files, video files and digitally download games from GOG. I also pay for cable and a Netflix account, and have from time to time contemplated replacing the cable with Hulu+.
In other words, I’m a fairly typical middle class American.
My acquire-lust started in earnest when I got my first job working for the library as a shelver (some libraries call them pages). Not only did I have my own money to buy things with, I spent countless hours going through stacks of books, CDs and DVDs browsing as I shelved. I like assimilating new ideas, listening to different music, watching TV shows, and reading interesting books and the library accentuated my ability to acquire new things. This desire carried on after that job, and now manifests in me spending a lot of money at Half-Price Books.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the ways we acquire things now, and how the digital realm is shifting away from ownership. Services like Pandora, Hulu and Netflix provide streaming services for music and video, some paid some not. The library now lends digital books and audiobooks and most public domain books can be obtained for free. We’re moving toward a world where we can tap into anything media related, without actually owning it.
My question is this: If digital media shifts even further into this “library” model of listening to content, will we continue to be materialists with regard to content?
Let’s assume that tablets and computers are widely available to the point that 95% of the population has them (maybe 20 years from now conservatively). By this point, while there always be high end hardware, most people will have a device that works just fine for them, much like TV’s are now. Almost everyone has one (some have several), and while some are obsessed with getting a big screen, for most it is just a way to view content and thus not the object of material desire.
It’s this desire that I think is the key point. Right now I would consider myself to be just as much of a materialist with regard to my digital life, as my physical life. Though I have access to a vast amount of streaming content and games, I still desire to own certain things (preferably as DRM free as possible to allow me fuller and more sustained ownership). I curate a small portion of the vast sum of human pop-culture and call it my own. Thus, even if I owned nothing but the computers and tablets that access this info, I would consider myself a materialist.
But if I didn’t own the content, and everyone had access to everything, would my simple desire to consume it be enough to make me a materialist? The consumption of new ideas and thoughts in an of themselves is not materialism. I also think it is possible to own a lot of things and not be necessarily obsessed with acquiring more (I hover in this space now, trying to be content with what I have, and trying to remove some of the clutter.)
I think people will always want things, and even when things are freely available to all, there will be something else that fills the void. But I think it’s important to think about the ways our changing digital society will influence our ideas about those obsessed with materialism.