In an important sense none of us owns anything, because nothing in this world is truly permanent and we are all mortal. Either we outlive our things or our things outlive us, and elaborate rituals of burying kings with their jewels and warriors with their swords do not change that, though they are meant to.
It seems to me that our cultural moment suffers from a bipolar response to this essential if unpleasant truth. Many people have given up on ownership altogether: They rent rather than buy their living spaces, stream their music and movies rather than buy CDs or Blu-Rays, read books on Kindles rather than buying paper codices. (No one owns their Kindle books; they purchase licenses to read them.) Living in this way can make people feel light, unencumbered, flexible—free to make changes at whim. We read of people whose whole lives are built around moving from city to city and even country to country, disdaining the very idea of “home” and replacing that outdated or illusory ideal with an Airbnb-enabled endless adventure.
But this life of ceaseless frictionless consumption without ownership seems also to have generated, in some, its antithesis: a desperate seeking for ownership without consumption, or at least without any concern for consumption. Thus the rise of the NFT—the “non-fungible token.” As media studies scholar Ian Bogost explains:
It’s not terribly helpful to conceive of NFTs as a new form of digital art or ownership or even technology. Owning an NFT doesn’t confer any rights in the intellectual property underlying the thing owned, which anybody can download for themselves. Those who purchase NFTs end up with nothing but a digital record—the deed for a thing that can be copied at zero cost, with zero repercussions.
I think Bogost is right to say that the rise of the NFT leads ultimately to the transformation of the Internet into a new venue for investment banking and securities exchange, but nobody buying NFTs thinks of them in that way. People buy NFTs because they want a Precious—my own, my Precious— and the whole point of a Precious is that no one else can have it. The great thing about the NFT, from the Gollumesque point of view, is that no Baggins can wander in and steal it. It is yours, securely, forever. But that is all it is or even can be. It is non-fungible, yes, but it is always and inevitably a mere token: simply and only the signifier of ownership.
Ownership without consumption; consumption without ownership—this is the circuit many of us occupy. A binary oscillation, on/off, zero/one, as the ultimate distillation of culture. Of human experience.
What happens to my digital life when I die? It is rarely clear. Apple provides what it calls its Apple Legacy Contact, which gives your designated heirs access to your Apple account after you die; Google’s similar service is called the Inactive Account Manager. Both seem oriented toward the end of closing that account rather than making further use of it. Amazon? You probably need to contact their Customer Service by phone or email. In all cases you are expected to provide a death certificate to initiate the process. What happens to your NFTs when you die? Well, that is a work in progress. Death seems like the kind of thing neither the pure consumers nor the dedicated owners want to think about.
In After Virtue the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre quotes Louis O. Mink: “Stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, middles, or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story. There are hopes, plans, battles and ideas, but only in retrospective stories are hopes unfulfilled, plans miscarried, battles decisive, and ideas seminal.” MacIntyre responds: “To someone who says that in life there are no endings, or that final partings take place only in stories, one is tempted to reply, ‘But have you never heard of death?’”
Often in the past decade or so I have “bought” a Kindle book because I have taken a good look at my bookshelves—my heavily laden bookshelves, with books stacked on them at every imaginable angle and, often, a second layer of books hiding behind the frontmost ones—and asked myself, What kind of mess will I be leaving for my family? Reading on a Kindle has seemed like a plausible way to avoid adding to their burdens. There are larger senses in which, as Gilbert Meilaender wisely wrote many years ago, “I Want to Burden My Loved Ones”—but to burden them with thousands of pounds of books? That did not seem right.
But lately I have been rethinking that. It is true that a thin plastic device that displays pixels doesn’t make much of a mess, but then, it is also true that life is messy—and not always in a bad way. When a dear friend, the poet and scholar Brett Foster, died a few years ago, many of us within the wide circle of his friendship got some of his books, and we treasure them not just because they are good and useful books but because they were his. Perhaps some of my friends will enjoy my old books in a similar way. Many of those books will be sold, but perhaps some will find their way to new generations of readers. I am delighted to imagine someone decades in the future shedding generous tears over a book that once brought me to tears. And even the books that end up being pulped can be turned into cardboard boxes—which in my experience are especially useful for carrying books in.
I have come to think that the prospect of passing my library along helps me to avoid the twin specters of pure ownership and pure consumption. My books are lent to me for a while; I am their caretaker, their steward, not really their owner. Even the ones I have most deeply loved, a love marked with many notes and queries, I will someday be parted from. At the end of his Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer appends an envoi: “Go, litel book, go litel myn tregedie….” Go, little library, I will say: Go out into the world and do some good to your next readers. I know you have it in you.