A Cloud over Ownership

Online services set content free from the physical world’s constraints—including those that have defined the very idea of possession.

Simson Garfinkel

Our possessions define us. Yet today the definition of possession itself is shifting, thanks to cloud services that store some things we hold dear on distant Internet servers. When those belongings reside in Netflix’s video service, Amazon’s Kindle bookstore, or Apple’s coming iCloud service, they become impossible to misplace, and easier to organize and access than before. They also gain new powers over us, and slip free of powers we once held over them—powers that have shaped our thinking and behavior for centuries. One consequence is to give the companies that provide cloud services tremendous amounts of unchecked control over these possessions. In some cases, that control has already been abused.

Despite the supposed revolution wrought by digitization, mass computing has until now left the fundamental nature of our possessions untouched. Collections of content have adorned the shelves and walls of our homes, schools, and courts since the Enlightenment. Nearly all of us (who are old enough) collected vinyl records in the 1970s, videotapes in the ’80s, CDs in the ’90s, and DVDs in the ’00s. Digitization simply morphed our urge to collect atoms into a thirst for curating bits, piled up on home computers.

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