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It's All Geek To Me: Surprise! Everything You Own is a Lie!

02/26/2014 05:38 EST | Updated 04/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Here's a fun question (Warning: Rhetorical Device, May Not Be Fun) for you: How many of your digital belongings do you actually own? Write out a list of the shows and movies you've watched, the eBooks you've read, the games and apps you've played, and the music you've listened to in the last week. Now count how many of those things you would have full and legal access to without an Internet connection.

Yeah. Sorry about that. If that bothers you, it's time to talk about Digital Distribution, and how it's made renters of us all. If that doesn't bother you, please Tweet me or something, because you've obviously got things figured out, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

Digital Distribution is an elegant way of saying "buying stuff online," with the huge caveat that you never receive a physical copy of your purchase. After you agreed with a compelling and well-reasoned article you read online and decided to download Candy Crush Saga, did a boxed copy of the game arrive on your doorstep? No; it was digitally distributed directly to your phone, at which point you proceeded to crush some damn candies.

And that, of course, is extremely convenient. Can you imagine the physical equivalent of iTunes? Just picture it: You, waiting in line to purchase a single song for a dollar while so-called Geniuses try in vain to explain why The National aren't as boring of a band as they appear to be. The iTunes model (which has extended to pretty much every other app store on the web) of business focuses on small, nigh-instantaneous transactions, and it works well.

Netflix and its ilk (Hulu, Amazon Prime) have taken a similar approach with a subscription-based model: for a set amount of money per month, you have access to all the streaming video content you (and your bandwidth) can handle. The world of gaming, once the domain bulky dust-magnet cartridges and fragile discs, has also accepted digital distribution over the last few years. Each of the three main console manufacturers (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) offer digital stores on their systems, and several options (Valve's Steam and EA's Origin service) exist for PC gamers as well.

Physical ownership is a fairly easy concept to understand: when it comes to consumer goods, once you purchase it, the object is yours. Period. If I buy the Harry Potter series, I can (and have) let anyone borrow it from me. I can colour-code each page of the series based on whether or not Ron has any spoken lines. I can cut out entire sections of Order of the Phoenix and turn them into a hat, because that's way more enjoyable than listening to Harry whine about how complicated his feelings are.

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The point is, I would own those books without question. But a funny thing happened on our way to digital distribution -- we went from owning things outright to leasing them for the moment. Is a book still worth $20 to you if it could be removed from your eReader by the seller? Is it worth $5? That's not a hypothetical situation, by the way: Amazon infamously deleted copies of 1984 straight from the eReaders of its customers after realizing it had accidentally sold unauthorized copies of the book. The irony of the situation was lost on absolutely no one.

I "own" upwards of 60 digital games on my Xbox 360. Some of those games cannot be fully played if I am disconnected from the Internet; even more of them lose functionality if I am not signed into my Xbox Live account, which I pay for monthly. If I am not signed into Xbox Live, I also lose access to Netflix and Crunchyroll, two streaming services I also pay for. Some of my games were created by studios that have since gone bankrupt, so many of their services (online multiplayer, for example) are now defunct.

I cannot share my digital Xbox games, nor can I pass them on to someone else. My games are tied to my account, but one day the Xbox 360 servers will be shut down, killing my console's Internet access. I have come to accept the fact that, even though owning these titles digitally should essentially mean I am building my own gaming archive for the future, ultimately I do not exercise full control over my access to the things I have purchased.

And this is by no means exclusive to gaming. Netflix, a company that started off by mailing DVDs to customers before moving towards instant streaming, licenses the shows and movies it uses on its service for set amounts of time, and sometimes those licenses are not renewed. It happened at the beginning of this year, and it happens on a weekly basis. I can't count the amount of times I have decided not to buy a physical copy of something because I remembered it was on Netflix, but the important part I always forget is that everything is on Netflix for now.

Bruce Willis is currently fighting Apple over the right to leave his iTunes music collection to his children in his will, because he technically does not own those music files. Services like Spotify and Rdio take a Netflix approach to music, allowing you access to huge streaming music libraries for a monthly fee. Hell, even YouTube is in the paid streaming market, offering a wide price range of movies on demand.

Across the board, we are being sold services instead of products; convenient avenues towards our entertainment of choice that can also be boarded up and revoked at a moment's notice. This is by no means an unmitigated tragedy, but it does help to know where we stand.

Digital distribution is, in many ways, a great equalizer. I now have the exact same access to the bounty of Netflix that anyone with similar internet access across the country does. (The quality of Internet access in rural areas is another matter entirely.) They can watch Community even if their local video store has never heard of it, and that's fantastic; physical proximity to stores is no longer the deciding factor around someone's entertainment options.

Another huge advantage is the sheer amount of stuff to enjoy when the only limit is the size of your bandwidth and hard drive. Once you factor in public domain ventures like Project Gutenberg (free eBooks!), it's actually possible to have more entertainment than you know what to do with, as anyone who has spent an hour just browsing Netflix and never choosing a damn movie can relate to.

But my favourite part of owning something is the ability to share it directly with people I care about. There is a huge difference between loving a book/movie/album/game and literally handing it to someone with your seal of approval, and going on about how great a book is, only to then tell someone to go buy it themselves. And that's what happens now; the best I can do is tell my friends where to spend their money. We've shifted from community lenders to low-level salespeople, simply because we never really owned the things we want to now share.

It comes down to how much you value collections and full physical ownership of your entertainment. If you've been a lifetime renter and see subscription distribution services as the best way to get what you want when you want it, then this has probably been an exercise in whining for you, much like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

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But the last decade has brought a change to our core concepts of consumption and ownership, and it helps to know where your subscriptions and downloads stand at the end of the day. Netflix (and Rdio and Steam and the Kobo Store) provides an excellent service, but it's just that: a service that can be changed or revoked for reasons that outrank your customer experience. And the presence and demand of digital distribution is only growing: World Wrestling Entertainment just launched the Netflix-like WWE Network in America this week, and Disney launched the Disney Movies Anywhere app, which is integrated with the iTunes store and offers hundreds of Disney movies for sale.

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Every time Adele releases an album or J.K. Rowling tries to write about non-wizard things, analysts are suddenly reminded that people still purchase physical objects. There's a reason for that, and we're currently living in the strange period between a pre-digital world and a (possibly inevitable) digital-only society. In a time where your phone can be your primary device for reading, music, gaming and movies (all on an eight-hour battery), it's important to keep track of where you are and where that could lead.

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The Internet is full of surprises.

It's All Geek To Me is a weekly column about geek culture, and how it's secretly all around you, influencing everything you do, forever.

Mike Sholars is a writer, editor, Twitter guy, and totally shares his Netflix account with his entire family.

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