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Freedom from ownership?

To own things was the source of the greatest joy as well as being a mark of achievement. Ghar basana, the idea of setting up home, was the painstaking accumulation of objects that gave stability and meaning to life. One’s place in the world got cemented by virtue of ownership. Owning things did nothing more than establish exclusivity of the right to use the thing in question, but its social meaning was so much more. One grew as one owned; the thing that one acquired became part of an expanded definition of the self.

What does it mean when we start preferring usership (an admittedly clunky, inelegant word) to ownership? The new app-based providers of transportation like Uber and Ola have revolutionized the lives of many. There are some of us today who can think about doing without a car, not for reasons for affordability but on grounds that it is no longer an essential. Similarly for travel Airbnb where one’s unutilized housing asset can provide affordable accommodation for travellers.

At a conceptual level, what does it mean for the idea of ownership? It is interesting that the idea of getting what we want when we want it seems to be becoming a higher form of possession. It raises an improbable question- what is it that we really want when we seek to own something? For ownership is at its heart really about control- that an object is ours to do as we please with it, at a time and place of our choosing. The new models of usership seem to deliver to this brief- the object in question now corresponds exactly to our desire- we get a taxi when we want it, to take us where we need it to go. It is in this preciseness of alignment between impulse and its satisfaction that a new definition of consumption is taking birth.

To own is also to simultaneously be owned. Objects occupy space; they weigh heavy and need minding. The act of driving through insane traffic, with gritted teeth and knitted brow, is part of the cost that ownership imposes on us. And then in the case of cars, there is the question of parking. There is something cruelly metaphorical about not finding a way to extricate oneself from one’s owned object. The car becomes an annoying appendage, a clingy pest that cannot be shaken off. The burden of ownership is never as heavy and as frustratingly cumbersome as it is when one is looking for a parking spot on a busy day in the city.

The joy of being able to own things begins to lose meaning in a surplus society, where the ability to afford things has no particular specialness attached to it. Consumption becomes mechanical, and excitement in owning things needs to be drummed up. The new version of a mobile phone that increasingly doesn’t quite live up to expectations, the new car buying decision which starts becoming a bit of a chore.

But ownership has its own gravitational pull; it needs built-in obsolescence to get an excuse for changing things. The idea of value is like a stubborn residue, a stain that never quite gets erased from our minds. We find it difficult, particularly in this country to throw things away. We need to extract some value from them and this isn’t easy. The kabadiwalas try gamely, but once the question of value enters the picture, objects sink into our lives with a heavier tread.

With time, we have learnt to discard things, we can think of buying a new car after 5 years, even 3. But with the new idea of shared usership, it is possible to avoid this vexed question altogether. For here, the superfluous/underutilized and the deficient come together with a satisfying click. The negative inverts into the positive. Every socket finds a plug. And vice versa. Connective tissue welds together, with great precision, need and surplus capacity. The consumption surplus residing in unutilized objects is harnessed. A market is created out of underuse.

The declining desire for ownership potentially produces a surplus of the self. Without the baggage of attachment to things, there is more of oneself to go around. The self becomes infinitely divisible; imagine an infinite wardrobe, where one could wear the clothes of one’s choice whenever one felt like it. If one could buy whatever one desired, one would have to be careful about what to acquire permanently. The fixed solid bits of identity could rapidly turn vaporous, as we would no longer be limited by our dominant selves- the chaps that were determining what we owned and as a result, what we became. Usership allows our identity to flicker through possible versions of ourselves, without necessarily being down by what we own, and what in turn owns us.

And yet, the social meaning of ownership continues to hold significance. Owning a house, for instance, has always held great meaning to one’s quest for growing roots and lending weight to one’s existence. And yet, in a purely financial sense, many argue that owning a house makes little sense in a context where rents are absurdly low when compared to the prices that houses command. The security of having one’s own home and the cultural meaning that accrues on account of being a home owner override whatever financial arguments that can be made against the idea of ownership.

We are still instinctively invested in the idea of attaching things to ourselves and extracting meaning from that sense of belonging, but technology and new models of collaborative consumption are making us more open to the idea we do not need to own everything that we need. There is a new grammar of desire that is beginning to take shape, and the implications that will unfold as a result are likely to transform how we think about and lead our lives. To be free of belongings is to imagine a very different kind of world.

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