Possessions: Did John Lennon get it right?by Alexander on August 2nd, 2013
I love the modern world. There has never been a better and more stimulating time to be alive. It really is important to keep in mind how much richer our world is even compared to the one we had in the 1980’s when I grew up.
No discussion of the future would be complete without reference to Back To the Future II: http://bit.ly/TGklVQ Watch, enjoy and then come back to me. At the time that film came out the fax machine had quickly become ubiquitous. So it was logical to assume that people would have loads of them in their homes. Obviously they hadn’t foreseen the most important current communication technology: e-mail. That clip is hilarious because in the light of e-mail, it is now ridiculous to assume that we would want all that paper filling up our house every time someone sent us a message.
It is therefore worth speculating on what the future will look like because in years to come, you can look back and laugh at your ludicrous naivety. In order to guess what might happen as we go forward, it is important to pick the technologies that seem likely to be the runners and riders.
My list would be: autonomous flying robots, wearable computers e.g. Google glass, bacterial data storage, and therefore e-books and online video and cheap, 1 dollar webservers and super cheap computing like the raspberry pie and arduino boards, new currencies like Bitcoin, to some extent 3D printing and the bacterial brick, which I suspect will be the start of something much more important than 3D printing. Finally a Wine Rides List wouldn’t be complete without the best form of transport – the bicycle.
A few years ago I had the enormous privilege of making a film for Discovery Channel about UPS. It was life changing because I went to a company called Zappos. They sell shoes on line. If you order before 9pm, anywhere on the mainland of the USA they can have your shoes to you by 08:30AM the next day. They can do this because their facility is at the end of UPS’s airport runway, so they are no more than 4hrs away from anyone in continental USA. In order to make that happen, in their factory they have a mind blowing machine. I can only describe it as the world’s largest, most complex rubiks cube, storing millions of shoe boxes. A computer knows the location of every pair of shoes in the machine. As the orders come in on line, the computer automatically commands this monster to move the squares of the rubiks cube in order to navigate a single pair of shoes to the outside of the ground floor level where a human picker stands.
That machine is the physical manifestation of the internet. Amazon and eBay are what we think of when we say “e-commerce”. But it is the delivery companies like UPS and FedEx that make it happen (and Yodel and TNT that don’t make it happen). Without the huge advancement in order fulfilment we had in the 1990’s, our current world would not exist.
As amazing as things are now, we need to look at the forces at play which will mould this world into our future. Global population is set to stabilise at 9 billion and we are now an urban planet with more than 50% of the world’s population living in cities. In the years to come more people will live in the world’s mega cities. So space is at a premium. When I moved to London as a student I lived a fairly Spartan life in halls in Kensington. I had too many clothes, a desktop computer, two plates (so I could have company for dinner) and my books, an MP3 player and a tooth brush. My possessions and I barely fitted in that dorm.
As I have got older I have acquired more stuff and as a result have become more buoyant and simply floated out from the centre of London to my current position in zone three. In a few years I hope to have a family and it seems likely that this further expansion will result in us adopting an even more distant orbit from the capital.
The reason I don’t live in central London is that there is a cost involved. London is very much like Bass Rock, one of the world’s largest bird colonies. Millions of gannets breed on that island and they all want the best spot in the centre. These fat, noisy sea birds fly to the centre, and crash in the middle of the colony. The strongest can stay in the centre and the weak and less dominant ones get pushed further and further out. In that way, a foreign billionaire who buys up central London property is not unlike a fat gannet that comes crashing down on the heads of the other birds. So if you want to live in central London, then you better live light, or find a way to get your bank account topped up by a nation’s mineral wealth.
This has of course already started happening. My own life is different from my parents in that I don’t own a car. For past generations the family car would have been their largest depreciating asset. Rather than private ownership, we use Zipcar, and if we are going away, Enterprise car rental. As a result I cannot just jump in my car and go to the big supermarket. I have to book a car buy the hour, or the day with my phone. The upside is that I am not haemorrhaging money over an expensive metal box and I don’t ever have to worry about any costly repairs. I also keep the cost for the rental down by letting my Zipcar membership lapse every year. I only ever renew it when I need a car for an hour. As a result my £60 membership of the car club actually lasts me more than a year. Because of where we live, in a walkable community, I only use a car a handful of times a year. Cars for me are now a utility like gas, rather than a possession. They are a service, not a product.
What made Zipcar possible was new information technologies. The transaction cost was drastically reduced by online payment and booking. This meant that for the first time in history, it was possible to book a car for an hour, rather than a whole day and the business was still economically viable.
Which means you have to ask, if the transaction cost continues to reduce what other possessions will start to become worthy of the Zipcar model? We now “share” cars. In doing so, it is possible to save money on a car and put that money into your housing. As a result, if you choose this strategy you can devote more of your income to your housing and live nearer the centre of the city. Is it possible that in the future we won’t only share cars we will also share clothes?
When I was filming with UPS, I became obsessed with the idea that a centralised system and scale could be used in other aspects of life. The one that occurred to me was clothes washing. If the council picked up your dirty laundry and took it to a new municipal washing facility, dried, ironed it and brought it back to you, that would not only be one more arduous task you don’t have to do, but it would also free up the space of a washing machine and drying from your flat. A friend of mine pointed out that the problem with that idea is: that who wants to send a nice expensive shirt to the municipal laundry? Building trust in such a system would be virtually impossible.
But what if the transaction cost got so low that clothes became items worthy of sharing under the Zipcar model? I am a member of the “Blue Harbour” community. Like thousands of other men in Britain, I have my annual excursion to Marks & Spencer’s to buy a series of bland, drab clothes which do me just fine. I’m sure there is another gaggle of people who frequent Top Shop, Next, or even wear only Armani.
Could it be possible that rather than owning all your own clothes, we rent them in a Love film model? On Sunday evening, just before you settle in to watch a film you are streaming, a box of clothes for you for the week is delivered to your house freshly laundered. It could be linked to your Google calendar, and there would automatically be those clothes you need for that meeting. There would be Amazon style recommendations: “I see you enjoyed wearing a cravat sir. You may also enjoy wearing a panama hat.”
It is unlikely, that a subscription to “Love Clothes” will get you to donate your threads and sell your wardrobe on eBay to make room for that pinball machine you’ve always wanted. Before you jettison the washing machine, the dryer and all your clothes storage, you are going to need something even better than a “Zipcar for clothes”. You would need to be able to pick your clothes that morning, and have them delivered to your house almost instantly. For the sheer inconvenience of not being able to pull them out of your cupboard and put them on, you would need to be rewarded with infinitely more choice than even our now vast personal clothing stockpiles will allow.
This will be possible. You can’t read about the Google driverless car without realising that anybody who drives a delivery vehicle or a taxi has a job with a sell by date. As soon as goods can be moved autonomously by robots, the transaction cost of these schemes will plummet. I live in a top floor flat, and I don’t even see why that should be an issue. The driverless vehicle will carry clothes around the neighbourhood and autonomous flying quodrocopters like this: http://bit.ly/13OeFko will take individual items from the street to your hand.
You will wear the clothes, and when you are done a quodrocopter will know you are home from your phone’s GPS signal and appear with a bag to come and get them. If the municipal laundry wrecks the clothes, you won’t give a hoot, you won’t even know. You never owned the clothes in the first place, they were just part of the price plan you paid for.
If that seems mad then think about some other things that seem mad today: For me to rent a car to get to my brother’s wedding – £30. For me to rent the black tie and top hat for the wedding – £110. A tonne of metal with thousands of highly engineered parts was a third of the price of a few pounds of cotton. If clothes rental does happen, then I am sure it will start with high value items first. And gradually take over. The people who adopt rental clothes first will be open-minded and affluent. I don’t think it can be long before we see a Zappos for black tie wedding clothes. They will send you out three sets and you will wear the stuff that fits. It will all get shipped back at the end, and the price will be low because unlike Moss Bros, they won’t need any high-street shops.
I highly doubt possessions will be driven to extinction. Young children tend to fight most over their possessions. Adults use them as a way of signalling their status and I am sure some people who consider a world where we individually own very little are currently suffering from some kind of existential crises. “What am I here for if it isn’t to accumulate all this stuff and then show it to people?”
In a society with less stuff, we may have to move from conspicuous consumption to prove our status, to conspicuous leisure. I am just young enough to be described as a “digital native”. Amongst my peers, there is already an etiquette about posting holiday images on Facebook. We now have the ability and the desire to flaunt our leisure time and our achievements on the web.
Richard Dawkins suggests that the oversized human brain is like a peacock’s tail, its unnecessary size is there for us to attract mates and gain status like a set of deer antlers.
In recent times the clear signal was “buying big”: Big cars, big houses and if not big, coat it in a heavy metal and make it shiny so it can be seen. Is it possible that social media is helping us get back to more subtle forms of self-aggrandising? I could be in my own digital bubble, but if someone posted a picture of a new widescreen TV, I would find that crass. If they posted a video of themselves doing a violin solo, or a head spin, I would rightly applaud their skill and effort. For you to get credit for your sports car there has to be line of sight. To get credit for a perfect rendition of Staying Alive by the Bee Gees you just need a smart phone.
My hope is that in the future we will see a lot more Breakdance-offs and far fewer Range Rovers. As a species we tend to over value our possessions. We get attached to stuff and it breaks. So often we may be better off not owning as much in the first place. I said this future world could be utterly unrecognisable from the present. It is hard to imagine not owning things and placing our personal worth in videos of us head spinning on You Tube. Our things are so real and our achievements so ephemeral. But what we have to realise is that since the 1980’s humans have built the world’s most indestructible machine: the internet. It is so widespread and so adaptive that it will almost certainly never break. For the first time in human history an action, once remembered, can’t be forgotten.
That is the biggest and most profound change in humanities fortunes there has ever been and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
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Gosh it only took 5 months to happen!