Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Subscriptions

I've always been rather disappointed by the subscription model's triumph over every other reasonable way of doing things, presumably primarily because I just can't shake the feeling that after paying month after month for one's entire life, one doesn't actually have anything for the trouble. This is pretty much the argument for buying a house rather than renting: you may still spend your life paying for a place to live, but at the end of it all, you wind up with a house. At any rate, I've always chafed at the idea that cable TV and phone service, for example, require eternal payments. (I mean, I understand the concept that you get something as long as you pay for it, but back in the day when people were predicting we'd all carry tiny computers and communication devices in our pockets, monthly service fees were never part of the picture.) I would probably have less of a problem if the pricing seemed more reasonable, but I think it's pretty obvious the companies just charge you as much as the disposable income you have (or debt you're willing to acquire), so I'm less likely to accept it as a legitimate cost of providing service.

I think this is one of the reasons I have such issues viscerally with the idea of e-readers. They're not subscription, but it leaves me feeling the same. If I'm going to pay for books, I want to actually own something afterward. I mean, clearly you do still have your digital books, but it doesn't feel as substantial or as real as paper books. Digital books seem less than two-thirds real, but you're paying two-thirds the price of a real book. (For some reason I don't have this issue with music. I have no problem buying music online, at least actual MP3s. (Now, the old iTunes songs that would suddenly become useless if you switched from Apple to anything else, on the other hand...))

Anyway, all of this is what makes it so weird that today I found myself suddenly having a vision of a happy, unencumbered future where I would hardly own anything, just pay for and use things as I needed them and then not have to deal with them any longer. This is (as far as I can tell) motivated by two things.

First, I'm moving in a few weeks, so I've been on a purging spree. I spent last weekend listing the majority of my DVDs and a not entirely insignificant number of books online to be sold. Going through all those movies and posting them for such insignificant sums of money while realizing how much I'd spent acquiring them in the first place (and how little use I'd since gotten out of them) was pretty dispiriting. I was sitting there thinking to myself how much richer I'd be if present me had somehow managed to go back and tell past me not to spend so much energy trying to build up a DVD collection when I really wouldn't watch them all that frequently (I'm not the kind of person who enjoys watching the same movies over and over, it seems), my tastes would change, and once Netflix came around (hm, a subscription service I'm more or less at peace witheventually, at least) I would entirely quit buying new DVDs and then quit watching the old ones as my DVD collection became more and more of an afterthought. (Then I started wondering what things I'm spending money on right now that I'd lament as shortsighted and misguided in five to ten years...)

Secondly, I joined Zipcar today. For some reason, I'm really, really excited by its entire concept, even though it is in no way different from anything else one might pay for and then not own at the end. Somehow, I think it's pure genius that you can have rights to occasional use of a car while not having to own, maintain, or insure it, etc. while not feeling the same excitement about cell plans or TV. (Maybe it's because cell phones and TVs aren't as annoying to take care of? A cell phone isn't a big enough investment for you to be terribly put out when you have to replace it; TVs don't really require any maintenance, just a place to sit.) For some reason, I see Zipcar as a liberating service rather than a restraining one. I wonder if this is is because I come at it from not owning a car, so it only adds to my possibilities, whereas if I were replacing a car with Zipcar, I might resent that I was still incurring vehicle-related costs but without even the benefit of owning it.

And there's the rub: why is owning something inherently better? The reason you own things is so you can use them when you want them. But if everything is set up to be easily accessible and not terribly expensive, you can still pretty much use them when you want themand all without having to store them anywhere!

And that's when I realized that between Zipcar, Netflix, and my local library, I was doing an awful lot of using-without-owning that I was pretty excited about. (I mean, I haven't actually used a Zipcar yet, but how can it disappoint?) Part of me feels like I'm throwing money away with Netflix, but then again, I do feel like it works pretty well with the way I watch movies. I can watch stupid movies I would never want to pay to go see or even to rent individually but am still for some reason interested in; I can watch really random and obscure stuff; I can watch weird stuff without feeling judged by the Blockbuster clerks or like I'm making them feel awkward (I'm looking at you, Ms. "And here's Eve EnslerohMonologues"); I can watch stuff without even exerting the energy to go out somewhere to get it; I can work through a list of things I feel like I should see without ever having to actually decide "OK, today is the day"it just shows up on my doorstep, and then once it's there, of course I have to watch it...eventually; since I never really want to watch a movie more than once a year (or longer), I don't feel like I'm wasting money on any particular movie. The library was similarly freeing (though I'll still definitely make an argument for having a book collection...but I'll admit my habits of the past few years were a little overboard and perhaps counterproductive). The library is great for new books I feel some push to read because I keep seeing them reviewed in all my news sources but probably don't actually want to own, particularly in hardcover (I hate hardcover books for some reason), but which are too time-sensitive to wait for the paperback editions. It's also good for all the stuff I feel like I should read or to fill in the gaps. There's less pressure to get a certain dollar amount's worth of enjoyment out of any given book, so since there's less at stake, like with Netflix, I'm more prone to dabbling.

So what's next? I really like the idea of owning almost nothing, just renting/borrowing what I need as I go. It feels more truly environmentally responsible: rather than every house having a car and presumably largely overlapping DVD collections andto a lesser extent, I would guessbook collections (and whatever else I'm not thinking of yet because I'm too in the box), it makes way more sense to share a smaller numbers of cars, movies, books.

Really, to make another dent in my acquisition habits, it would have to be clothes. Unfortunately, that seems a little more problematic to implement well. I know people who use Bag Borrow or Steal so they can have fancy, expensive purses while not having to actually make the investment. Unfortunately (well, fortunately) designer handbags aren't really on my radar, so that wouldn't be quite so useful for me, but I applaud the concept for those who are interested. I think you can do that with fancy jewelry, too. Maybe kitchen supplies? I don't really need to own a panini press, a blender, a waffle iron, a pasta maker, a rice maker, such a variety of cake and pie and muffin pans, and so forthwouldn't it make sense to share (and not have to store everything all in my house)? I've pretty much decided that I'm not terribly interested in actually owning a house (like cars, they're an awful lot of work), so I'm more or less unconcerned with renting for the rest of my life, unless that's going to leave me ruined in retirement.

I'll have to give this more thought, but I'm definitely excited about the general idea of having less stuff and a less cluttered living space and life. If the subscription model gets me there, I guess count me in.

1 comment:

  1. Wooo go you. This is also why I love Amazon as a company so much. If I want a book, I can have it the next day. When I'm done, I can resell it. And for computing, I use Amazon Web Services, where you can rent computing power by the hour. Their business is based on efficiently rendering on-demand services.