For the slightly-less-than-a-decade, I’ve kept this blog I’ve noticed one thing that’s been increasing year by year; the reduction of customers’ agency. It’s been going on ever since World War II, as corporations became ever more global and information technology kept maturing towards the globally connected era we’ve entered. It’s all about the control of the product, nothing more, nothing less. You would think this just a minor problem, but considering things like homes, cars, the everyday equipment we use to make food, you name it, are products that corporations wish to gain control over. This would be laughable if it wasn’t already taking place with the media we consume.
The finest example of how customers lose agency is with streaming media and online stores that don’t give you full freedom to the product. The examples, of course, are Netflix and Steam. Their users have allowed convenience to take over their own agency, the control of the product they consume. While both Netflix and Steam allow you to consume the content they provide at your pleasure, it’s under their rules. Netflix decides what you can watch in its selection much like how Steam’s library decides what you are able to buy. While this seems natural, it also means they are a controlling middle-man, the ones saying what can and can not be on their virtual shelves. Not only this works against the consumer with the limited selection, something that the Internet has made moot when you could buy whatever game with slight searching, but that’s not possible nowadays as the majority of PC games have become Steam-linked. You are unable to play them without the digital console in the middle without resorting to cracking them. Even when you buy the physical disc, chances are that the default installer instantly jumps to Steam with no other way to play it. You have no options, you lack the control. The same goes what Netflix offers with its model, taking away the control of the product. The difference being here is how Steam allows needs you to download the games and to some extent meddle with them and you retain the right to play them, as long as you go through Steam. You have no control over Netflix. If a show is dissipaters from the catalogue, it’s gone.
Subscription is the word for both. You subscribe to the license or to the service, which means the users are completely willing in most cases to waver away their own agency and control, and all the responsibility those bring with them, to the corporations running these services. In the case of entertainment media this seems fair, yet again the customer has no control. To many the idea of having physical media at your house seems distasteful, some even hate the idea of physical items taking space. Both of these are things that require the customer to carry weight on their backs rather than dumping them elsewhere. Despite there being many who don’t want that physical media are happy that alternatives exist, but there are no alternatives that would allow them to extend their own agency and control over the products. All they are getting is the equivalent of a movie ticket.
Hollywood was extremely afraid of losing control over their product when VHS was first introduced in the 1970s. What would happen if customers bought their own copy of the movie, which they could watch over and over again? The theatres and studios would lose money now that they couldn’t control the product the customer owned. They introduced a move to install a magnetic wipe head into VCRs, which would gradually blank the tape as it was watched. By the third time, the customer would lose most if not all of the tape’s content, forcing them to buy a new copy. This idea never came to be, but its vestiges are now in the types of Netflix, where the customer has no control whatsoever.
Netflix has taken everything out of the customers’ hands. The product, at a glance, is the service of streaming series and films. It’s also the second-best way to save space by allocating all that to Netflix digital services, as long as you’re willing to wave away your rights. Much like Steam, Netflix can cancel your subscription at any point they see you breaking their contract. Similarly, some argue that you never bought movies, films or games in general, just their license. The difference, of course, being that by having a physical item in my hand negates this, as none of the companies can come to my home in any legal measure and take that product away.
All this is highly debatable and most people will dismiss both of them. However, this service model of a subscription is being extended to things like cars, printers and washing machines. Rather than buying a machine of your own, you subscribe to a service of which you pay monthly. You would never own it, just pay for the privilege to use someone else’s machine. If something were ever to happen to it, or the service owner deems you to break any of the rules, you’re screwed. It’s the same with cars, and now with smart cars driving themselves, even the responsibility of learning to drive is taken away from the customer.
That’s all this is ending up, ultimately. When the customer is losing their agency and rights to own anything, everything is locked out from their hands. Apple is a massive example of this as their practices both in hardware and software is as anti-consumer as it could be. Their updates are bricking older machines, they refuse to sell spare parts to their devices and offer higher-cost exchange programs instead. The systems are built to fail as well, with flaws that could be nothing less than intentional. Apple’s systems and products are a lifestyle, and their customers buy into that as much as they do into their products. Of course, whatever you do on your Apple devices also means Apple has the right to sell your data to advertisement companies and such, something that they have in common with Google and other big tech companies. Even with Steam and Netflix, they get data from their users they can make money on. Your privacy is nonexistent, and that is sadly something we all have more or less accepted a necessity. It shouldn’t be, and this is one of those points where the law is behind the times. I’ll outright argue that selling user information should be considered an illegal invasion of privacy despite whatever agreement clauses these companies put into user contracts. It’s one more thing where consumers lose agency, and it’s one of those things gets talked about yet nobody is making any moves to actually do anything about it.
The whole Right to Repair seems to be doomed. Companies like John Deere and Apple are fighting it in very dirty ways, but this is all about controlling the product again. They don’t want complete control over the product, but also the way they’re used and everything tied to them. Both corporations aim to lock the customer to their dealers alone in a manner nobody else could service their devices. With John Deere this is even more evident in how this would effectively remove all the competitions from the aftermarket and repair section as there has been a rather long tradition of optional and alternative parts from cheaper manufacturers. Parts that might have been slightly worse, but had the exact same performance. With John Deere moving more and more towards a similarly closed ecosystem to Apple, farmers will find themselves unable to find parts to fix their machines without needing to pay premier prices, but also they’ll find themselves in a situation where field modifications or modified software locks them out and bricks the system. It’s a matter of time, not whether or not this is possible. Apple is already doing this. You can’t even change the screen or the camera between two new Apple iPhones without the phones freaking out and making features inaccessible. It appears that smart devices are the ultimate way to lock control away from the users unless they decide to modify the system to remove these elements, e.g. de-Google an Android phone. Even then, if something is burned to the hardware to make the device effectively non-functional intentionally, the only way for the customer to go would be to not buy such a product and go for another product that wouldn’t infringe the customer’s control. This isn’t even a question if someone would want to modify or not, if there were a need or not, but rather simply whether or not the customer would be able to. When the customer doesn’t have any choice and all there is one singular option, we’ve lost large portions of personal and individual rights to what we’ve put our efforts into gaining.
Hell, you can’t even buy a non-smart TV anymore. Everything has a chip innit to spy on what you do with the device.
What’s the ultimate end goal here? At this pace, the customer will end up losing more of their rights and the agency they have towards the things they purchase. Purchasing itself will turn into a subscription with products, and products will be tied to a service. With that, the customer’s control over is taken away, after which more and more of our lives will be controlled by an outside power. When you leave everything to the corporations, they’ll take it gladly. The customer is expected to consume, but only under the terms of the provider with no personal control whatsoever.
Most of the previous could be considered a small nuisance, something which we could let go. However, it’s a slide that won’t stop. While ownership is a contested concept, what’s behind it are ultimately strong values of determination, personal responsibility and willing to take control one your own life. These should be clear things to adults. You have to find a way to make a living in order to strive towards your own personal goals. Some of these goals might be at work, others in personal life. It asks determination, and responsibility to carry the necessary tasks out. We can’t play all day long doing nothing or live on other’s wing. Certainly, there are those who would provide for others, yet that means losing your own agency and control in the same manner corporations are taking away customer’s agency. Making our own decisions while we are dependent on someone, or something else, makes us only a slave to the system which can exert control over us however it would wish to. Hence, we must take control of how we live, which requires the two first aforementioned bits. Yet we’re willingly and constantly allowing corporations terrible consumer practices and invasions of privacy as well as underhanded service models to undermine all these. Hell, all those devices at your home, that listen to you during every moment, were introduced by likes of Amazon and Google rather a governmental power. Rather than a nation becoming that stereotypical evil oppressor we know to hate and fight against, we’re gladly willing to let all our responsibilities go and embrace these devices with open arms. At this rate, there will be two points; One where the customer refuses to give away his freedom to choose how they live with all the responsibilities it brings; the other where everything we have is owned by someone else and we have no control over our lives.
It all really ends in taking responsibility on the actions and decisions we make. Something like taking a loan for school is ultimately a decision and a responsibility we must make, and then undertake the task of paying them back. The alternative is that we have no responsibilities, and thus no choices to make.