Thursday, June 29, 2006

Product to service: a cultural shift?

A few months back, when the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies did a small project for the South Korean government on construction and transportation, I was put in mind of a service I'd heard about in London, involving pay-as-you-go access to cars scattered around the city (sort of halfway between a taxi service and car rental, but automated). I didn't know the business name then, and couldn't locate a reference, but today I stumbled across a neat link on it. Arguably, this exemplifies a trend from ownership to access (or products-->services). Why own something outright if a more limited arrangement will suffice?

Another, deeper way this trend manifests, I'd say, is in the Bill McDonough-Michael Braungart (Cradle to Cradle, c.f. sustainability) concept of "products of service", whereby non-consumable, hard-wearing products like TVs, cars and carpets are seen as "rented" rather than bought from the manufacturer, which takes responsibility for the fate of those molecules when the product reaches the end of its life cycle. (Consider the European Union directives which apply this notion of producer reponsibility to products including vehicles and electronic goods.)

If this represents a taking of greater responsibility for, or internalisation of, what economists used to be pleased to call "externalities", could it, in turn, be seen to speak of a gradual deepening in our understanding of time? (The "longer now"; a tendency toward what we could call "temporal holism" -- and applaud.)

Let's see: there may be interesting higher-order implications here... On realising that physical products, and the consequences of manufacturing them, outlast their human "owners" by many, many generations, the traditional conception of ownership comes to seem a rather absurd conceit. Life's short! A quote from the film Crocodile Dundee (01986, dir. Peter Faiman): "See those rocks sitting up there? Been standing there for six hundred years. Still be there when you and I are gone. So arguing over who owns 'em is like a couple of fleas arguing over who owns the dog they're living on." (See also this post about The Rocks video which makes more or less the same point.)

Optimistically, then, perhaps our callow Western civilisation is edging towards recognition of the wisdom of what I understand to be the Australian Aboriginal relationship to land -- that people belong to it, not the other way around. Granted, this kind of radical inversion of current "common sense" may seem a far cry from D.I.Y. car rental -- but in light of the above, we could venture to say that they may be not so far apart after all.


Dan Sullivan said...

I didn't see a way to post to you privately.

I saw your quote of Crocodile Dundee comparing people arguing over who owns the earth to fleas arguing over who owns the dog. I was wondering if you knew that classical liberalism was predicated on the idea that the earth was a commons, and that those who hold land for their exclusive use owe rent to the rest of the population that is thereby dispossessed. As a result, they advocated a land value tax on exclusive possession.


Dan Sullivan, director
Saving Communities

stuart said...

Hi Dan,

I don't remember hearing about Georgist economics before (from the CGO website you forwarded: "to abolish all taxation save that upon land values").

Thanks for taking the time to post those interesting links.