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The ‘Un-ownership’ economy

Posted by Flux on 

27 November 2023

What’s trending?

Have you come to depend on a gadget which has transformed your life? Well, if the manufacturer decides to stop supporting that device, you will in all likelihood have no recourse.  You will be left with just another obsolete gadget – even if the device is one that allows you to see. Second Sight, the bionic eye company stopped software support for its Argus II prosthetic eyes after it pivoted to making brain implants (which are presumably more profitable) instead. Software plays a large role in the functioning of devices. After purchase, consumers rely on the manufacturer to maintain the software – but this service can be stopped at a moment’s notice if the consumer stops paying instalments or if the company decides to close down or pivot. Ford published a patent document in February this year where self-driving cars could re-possess themselves. The re-possession would start by gradually disabling some of the car’s features, such as cruise control or the media player. It would then progress to remotely driving the car to the premises of the lending institution, or if the lender determines the car is not worth the cost of repossession, the car could drive itself to a junkyard. In another instance of disabling features for missed payments, a motorcycle airbag vest made by Klim will stop working if the owner defaults on subscription payments. 

Why is it important?

Does this herald the end of ownership? This trend brings into question who owns products if they can be controlled by external parties. It’s no longer a case of buying the product outright and then ending the relationship with the manufacturer. The manufacturer continues to engage with the consumer through a subscription model (for certain features perhaps) or by software support over which we have little control. Manufacturers see this as a way to increase revenue – but is it at the expense of consumers’ rights if they have the power to stop a life-saving vest from working or leave blind customers in the lurch? Some argue that it is more cost effective not to pay for a feature upfront but rather to pay for it when financial circumstances are good. But in the long run, the consumer will end up paying more than if they purchased it outright.

What can businesses and policymakers do about it?

Businesses need to take special care when using this approach to increase revenue. They need to be transparent about the terms and conditions of the service when the product is bought. It borders on unethical if withholding services endangers consumers or violates their rights. This area is largely unregulated but this is likely to change as consumer rights organisations lobby for increased consumer protection. Policymakers must pay close attention to how this trend  unfolds and find a balance between protecting consumers and allowing manufacturers to maximise their profits.

By Faeeza Khan

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Image credit: ThisisEngineering RAEng

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