One of the side effects of the digital version of enshittification is that stuff you thought was yours disappears – and not just stuff you stored electronically, like ebooks and music, but tangible goods, like appliances and cars.

Cory Doctorow had a particularly good piece on that this week. It’s not just that electric vehicles are “computers on wheels” as he says and therefore the manufacturers can stick in things you don’t want and can’t remove, but there’s the definite possibility that if the car maker goes broke, the fancy, expensive vehicle you bought will be bricked.

It’s bad enough to pay for ebooks and then learn that we were only paying for limited access to those books when the company decides to delete them, but think about paying $50,000 for a car that suddenly doesn’t work anymore because the company failed or screwed up.

One of things about buying stuff is the assumption that if you take good care of it, you will have it for a long time. Disasters might happen – these days that’s also a likely risk – but barring that, your stuff is your stuff for a reasonable life span as long as you pay attention.

I still have mass market paperbacks I bought in college and, let’s face it, mass market paperbacks were not meant to last.

Having ebooks disappear is particularly annoying, because those of us who read a lot buy books and then don’t get around to reading them for years. Not to mention that we re-read as well.

But really, very few people I know are in a financial position to buy an expensive car and have it bricked a year later because the manufacturer did something wrong. Also, I spent enough years practicing law to suspect that if you bought the car with a loan from your credit union, you might still be on the hook for the loan on the dead car.

The lender could repossess the car, but bricked it might be worth less than you owe.

The only solution is to only buy things that cannot be bricked or twiddled (to use another Doctorow word). There are two problems with that.

The first is that it’s getting harder to do that. If you want an electric car – and if you have to have a car, that’s the way to go – you will be giving up some control to the manufacturer no matter how much you pay. And this can happen with anything remotely computerized in your life.

The second problem is the basic problem of stuff.

I have too much stuff as it is, way more than I can keep up with. I really don’t want more stuff.

While I’m thinking of this as a personal stress point, it’s actually a major environmental issue. There’s just way too much stuff out there. And if in getting rid of my excess stuff I throw a lot in the trash, that only solves my personal problem.

You see this regularly in pieces about the younger generation not wanting all the stuff their parents accumulated. As a member of the older generation, I note that many of us inherited a lot of stuff from our parents and even grandparents.

Up until the second half of the 20th century, such things as furniture and fancy dinnerware were expensive things passed down.

The world has shifted and a lot of stuff that was incredibly expensive is now ridiculously cheap. Compare the cost of an Ikea chest of drawers to the heavy mahogany one your grandmother might have had. Don’t forget to allow for the difference in what the dollars were worth at the time.

So there’s too much stuff and modern lifestyles are not about that sort of stuff. And while some people still collect books, art, jewelry, antiques, a whole lot of us don’t want all that stuff.

What we want is access.

Digital versions of things such as books and music can be a good way to have that access, except that the way the system works now doesn’t guarantee you have it as long as you want it.

And that doesn’t even get into the problem of how fast tech can change, which means that digital versions are, in fact, more vulnerable to being lost than books on paper or LP records.

While I read in every possible format, I would ideally like to have most of my books available electronically so that they don’t take up so much space and so I can search for them and in them easily. But because I can’t trust that, I have large piles of books (and a library card).

The solutions to this problem are many and complex. With cars and bricking, for example, we’re going to need some changes in law. We can’t just let companies go out of business while they still have duties to their customers; somehow we need a way to make sure the products continue to be supported for a reasonable time period.

But with many other things, the best thing we can do is invest in archives, ones that commit not just to keeping objects, but that also make some of those objects (like books, recordings, and movies) available to everyone in the current digital formats, whatever that is.

This needs to be a nonprofit and international enterprise or rather a networked collection of such enterprises. It should be set up so that anyone can use most of the materials digitally, though the fragile originals must also be protected, with access limited to scholars and such.

Obviously we have such archives – usually called libraries or museums – but I doubt we have nearly enough of them to save all that should be saved and even those of us in wealthy countries don’t have great access to everything. And they don’t keep everything, not by a long shot.

I want the people who make the things to get paid, but I also want everyone to be able to use them, including those without a lot of resources.

And there’s one more thing: I want this stuff to get kept in a way so it can still be used a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years from now.

This will take incredible amounts of work, but it is, in fact, doable.

Every once in awhile I think about the fact that William Shakespeare was writing a little over four hundred years ago and today we’re not even completely sure who he was. And we know a lot of plays and other works by his contemporaries were lost.

And that’s just four hundred years. When I was in college I took classes in Greek and Roman plays (in translation – I’m lazy). It’s amazing that we have as much as we do, because so very much went missing millennia ago.

I’m sure the same is true of many great works in China, Japan, and Egypt, just to mention three countries that have long histories of civilizations that include art and literature.

The literature we do know that goes back that far is still relevant to us today.

One thing we can give the future is archives of the work being done now and the work we have collected from the past.

As a writer, I’d love it if a thousand years from now someone read something I wrote and found it meaningful.

But even more important, I think that we need that history of human beings – the written and created history – to become a more civilized species.

Because frankly, we’re not civilized yet.

2 thoughts on “Stuff

  1. I have taken to–where I can–investing in the DVD or Blu-Ray of movies I like for this exact reason. I don’t want to have to rely on a streaming service to access some things I routinely re-watch. But even there, there are problems. I recently discovered the reason DOGMA, a Kevin Smith film of which I am very fond, is not available streaming anywhere, and it’s almost impossible to find a non-bootlegged recording, because the rights are somehow tied up with Harvey Weinstein (who owned the production company when the film was made, or something like that–I wasn’t taking notes) and so, until Smith gets the rights back, it’s… just not there. The same may be the problem with TOPSY-TURVEY, another film I particularly like: I finally got a very expensive Blu-Ray, but it took diligent searching.

    And then there’s the matter of ebooks. At a time when I am actively seeking to downsize my library, ebooks would seem the way to go (if nothing else, when I go my kids won’t have to deal with 1970s paperbacks…). But with books on paper at least I have the physical object. With digital books… who knows? They can just go **poof**. Which is, I guess, an argument for getting books as PDFs, regardless of how clunky the format is.

    What time is civilization due?

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