Mine! The Things We Think of As Ours

‘What does it mean if someone can delete hundreds and thousands of hours of sound culture overnight?’ asked Jace Clayton, a musician and the author of ‘‘Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture, in a recent article on Soundcloud’s teetering demise.

The idea that we reserve the right to be shocked when something is taken away that wasn’t really ours in the first place, whether that’s music, words, or pictures, seems to be the plight of those that have grown up or grown accustomed to the seemingly free Internet.

But this behavior makes me more interested in how quick we are to think of things as our own. And the implications of that on what we make and how we market and position brands and products.

I witness it in yoga almost every class. People wander into the studio, putting their mats in a spot where they’re not too close to other people. They grab borrowed props like a block or blanket, placing everything just so. And then the latecomers arrive, forcing everyone to shift their mats and props to accommodate. The unsettling continues when the teacher asks students who have two blocks to give one to another student who doesn’t have a block because they came in late (HUGE eye roll). I observe how easily we become perturbed, ignoring the opportunity to practice our yoga sutras: being undisturbed, being unattached. The discomfort people feel, giving up what they thought of as theirs for even a few minutes, whether it’s spatial or a foam brick, is almost painful to watch.

Of course, if you have a toddler you’re quite familiar with this behavior. After witnessing the “violent rage” shown by babies whenever deprived of an item they considered their own, Jean Piaget, a founding father of child psychology, observed something profound about human nature: our sense of ownership emerges incredibly early and as we become fond of possessions, our brains ascribe a sort of magic to them — a magic that can’t be found even when an exact replica of the original possession is offered to us as a replacement.

Called the endowment effect, humans value items much more highly just as soon as we own them. Well, most humans. There was that one woman who, at least temporarily, lost her sense of ownership over her belongings, stirring a bunch of scientists to wonder what can a mind that’s lost its sense of that feeling of mine-ness as it relates to stuff and things tell us about our own relationships to our stuff and things?

Property relations are tenuous and our relationship to digital things — even the things we knew we were just renting or accessing, appears to create the same effect as the things we buy, the things we can touch, put in lockboxes, and cuddle when we’re sleepy or sad.

Debunking the idea that mine-ness is a result of loss aversion (something marketers and planners love to play with in advertising), we value our possessions because they contribute to our identity. In fact, we overvalue goods because they are part of who we are.

So beyond what happens when thousands of hours of sound culture disappears overnight, whether or not we pay for access to our favorite tracks, the point is, that music is ours. At least in our minds.