Week 10: Updating IRL

Apologies in the delay getting this post to you fellow bloggers, the Easter bunny brought me the flu for Easter so I’m a bit out of sorts, but here goes!

Besides music, the downloading of apps is probably the main way in which my ownership of digital objects gets tested. I find myself mildly annoyed when an app I get accustomed to using in one way, is altered or updated in another way that forces me to re-learn its functions or re-shape my attitudes towards it (I am a creature of habit I suppose).

A very current example would be Instagram, which is purportedly going to be changing its feed algorithms to favour popularity over chronology. This is annoying because it means that it will be harder to follow the famous and non-famous in a peacefully co-existing way, as the more popular content is privileged. However because the app is free rather than a purchased app, it’s difficult to feel too hard done by, after all there are many instances where apps disappear or change after you have purchased them. Also, there is of course the option to turn off automatic app updates so that you can stay with whatever versions is currently being used. The downside of this is that there is sense that you are missing out on something and you have to go through the additional labor of manually updating some things and not others if you do decide to update. This is all just to say that updating is not a bad thing, just merely an interesting aspect of the digital object that contributes to our sense of it as a living, evolving organism rather than a complete creation. FOMO (fear of missing out) seems to eventually get the better of us – you don’t want to update, but what if you miss out on something cool?

If you do purchase an app, these things become even more interesting to think about because the boundaries of ownership become even blurrier – you have access to the app – but it’s being altered and updated by its creators. There is a sense that it really never is yours in quite the same way. When I purchase something digital I know in the back of mind that I may very well be paying for a very temporary experience with something, but instant gratification usually gets the best of me and I will purchase something because I want to use it today without much concern for its use tomorrow.

The sense of the update as being an embedded part of a digital object means that the thing we purchased is a living service rather than something we make a single transaction for in order to acquire a specific item. One simply cannot have control over the app in quite the same way as a physical object (unless you happen to have elite hacking skills). The update complicates our relationship to something we own because it means that what we have paid for is still very much under the control of the original content creator.

Apps already seem to occupy a grey area in terms of ownership as their existence isn’t in conversation with a tangible history the way the digital book is. Part of their identity is defined through their use and purchase, and the tenuous and fragile nature of these digital features. The less control you have over something, the harder it is to feel as though you possess ownership. The concept of control of information comes up in the Adrian John’s article as something that has “become a principal foundation of modern social, economic, and cultural order. As it has become the key commodity in the globalized economy, so control and management of information have vastly increased in overt importance.” (5). Who controls the things we buy is a more intriguing question than ever when the commodity never fully leaves the control of the creator. With apps, whether purchased or not, people are less likely to invest their confidence in them as an enduring commodities, which has created a diluted sense of ownership when it comes to apps.

Johns, A. (2009). Piracy: the Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

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