Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Owning vs. renting

Grant McCracken takes a look at why people buy stuff.

The move from ownership to rental is driven then by a simple motive: rental may be more expensive and less emotionally satisfying, but it is so much more efficient as a means of staying in touch with a dynamic culture.

But what about owning what we used to rent? My case in point here is the sale of DVDs. This is one of the great mysteries of contemporary culture. Americans are buying DVDs by the millions, and by this time most of them know they are never going to watch these DVDs a second time. But there it is: we are buying what the world makes it really easy to rent.

It might be that we buy DVDs for the same reason we build "great rooms." Both allow us to play out the fantasy that one day the family will all get together for a lovely evening of film watching. Nah. It is perhaps some measure of the extent to which movies matter to us, that we want to own a copy of some films even if we never expect to play them a second time. In fact, does anyone watch everything in a boxed set? Kubrick maybe. But otherwise. There is something about ownership here that we find deeply________.

I think the missing word is "unfulfilling."
I have bought a lot of stuff in my life that I didn't really need. I can make a case for needing shoes or petfood or toilet paper, of course. But is there really anything for sale in an American shopping mall necessary for living? Not for me. Once my shoes inventory reaches six or eight pairs, counting flip-flops, I really don't need any more. My one suit is enough for the few occasions I have to show up really dressed instead of clean and casual. One good lawnmower is enough for the yard. And I learned years ago that buying and taking care of a "pre-owned" car saves a lot of money.
We had a lake house once, but it was a monument to the time I didn't have in my life. Same is true for a handful of videos that we never watch, sixty or sseventy pounds of old LP's I no longer listen to and a small personal library I love to show off but rarely consult for anything.
I used to save newspapers, thinking someone would like to read about the day that Alaska or Hiwaii became a state, or a president was killed. But I learned that my kids cared nothing about "that old stuff." They respected it about the same as a school yearbook which will one day be sold at a yard sale in a cardboard box along with some old magazines and a paperweight. Somebody will pay a dollar for the box, keep the paperweight and trash the rest of the box.
I learned last week that my treasured first editions of Gulag Archipelago which set me back a few bucks when they were first printed are now available all day long for a dollar via abebooks.com.

So how come so many people are buying DVD's? I think that at some level they sense that they are disposable, the same as paper goods that deliver fast foods or a day pass for an amusement park. Like tobacco or gambling, buying stuff is basically just another bad habit costing money. Renting is just another way to buy stuff after you figure out that there is not much difference, cost-wise, between renting and owning anything. To use an example from investment choices, owning common stock is a long-term commitment, but options (puts and calls) expire, mostly not exercised.

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