Will we own anything in the far future?

Many of the things we once "owned" have become a subscription or a service. Does that mean the whole idea of "ownership" is changing? Will we even *own* anything in a few decades?

"Individualism is clearly not the way forward."

Music, software, even cars— the things we once "owned" are now subscription or service-based. What will ownership mean in the year 2050? (Ben Shannon/CBC)

The desire to own things is very strong in our culture. And so is the pressure to do so. Own a house, a car, the latest iPhone ... all symbols of status and a sense of security.

It's as though the goal of ownership is the one true path, and any deviation is seen as individual failure.

But now, for many people, that path seems to be hitting a dead end: The dream of home ownership in many cities has become more fantasy than expectation, as home costs push their way relentlessly upwards. And a famous survey several years ago revealed that a majority of millennials would rather have the latest smartphone than own a car.

What's emerged is the so-called sharing economy: technology has allowed companies like Uber and Airbnb to thrive, filling the gap between ownership and need.

Is this a trend that's going to continue? As more goods become services, from software, to music, to TV, to even cars, is the idea of "ownership" a concept whose time has passed?

Bruce Hood, a developmental psychologist and author of the book, Possessed: why we want more than we need, suggests that need for ownership in humans presents itself early in childhood, when kids in daycare argue about toys.

"Very often it's been reported that the reason the children seem to fight over these things is not so much to own them, it's just to be in control of them," he told Spark host Nora Young.

Behavioural psychologist Bruce Hood says the origins of the ownership mechanism isn't just about the acquisition of things, but a statement of status. (BruceMHood)

But he suggested it's more societal programming than a concept hard-wired into our brains.

"Children spontaneously realize, for example, that if you find a diamond ring when you're walking through a park, it's likely to have been owned because it's something that's been manufactured, whereas a pinecone or stone isn't. And we might agree with that until we discover that if you're walking through a national park, [where] even the stones and the pinecones are owned because everything within the confines of the national park is owned."

Moreover, hunter-gatherers, of which there are very few left on Earth, don't have the same sense of ownership over objects, he said.

"Hunter-gatherers can't have unique ownership. It's one of the defining features, as they can't carry a lot of stuff around with them. And so they have a more collectivist concept they call demand sharing, which is really interesting, which is that if you're not using something, then I'm entitled to help myself to it."

Hood said the move to a sharing economy is in part enabled by the rapid growth of technology, which makes the complicated issue of, say, sharing the use of a house simple and convenient.

Moreover, he said as climate change makes us more aware of the impact of our ownership and consumption, sharing and recycling become more attractive. "Individualism is clearly not the way forward, simply because it's incompatible with the limited resources that we have on this planet."

A sharing economy also makes sense from an economic perspective, but only if it's equitable, said economist and software developer Steve Waldman.

Economist and software developer Steve Waldman discusses how the idea of a sharing economy might be taking hold against the entrenched need for ownership. (S.Waldman)

"If you have a house, you have to take care of it all by yourself. If you are a renter in a large apartment building, there are a lot of economies of scale. People who actually know what they're doing will help you take care of it. So an optimistic way to look at moving toward less ownership is just, as we specialize more," he told Young.

"We can become more interdependent and the burdens of ownership diminish when we can enjoy the benefits of ownership simply by renting, sharing, subscribing, whatever social arrangement we invent for getting the use of goods and services without bearing the maintenance costs."

However, there are many pitfalls. The current sharing economy is heavily tilted toward those who own the resources and those who have the means to make use of them. "I think for the moment, the gig economy tilts more on the side of dystopia," he said.

And ownership as a valued idea won't disappear until people can be sure their needs can be met equitably without requiring the 'insurance' that ownership provides.

"Owning a home is a really kind of clunky thing to do, but it gives me a tremendous amount of insurance and security. If I am literally depending day to day on some kind of sharing or interdependence for my shelter then if the terms of trade turn against me... I'm in a really bad situation." he said.

"It depends so much on the question of do we resolve this kind of contemporary cul-de-sac that we're in without concentration of power and wealth? If we do resolve that, if we resolve our political problems, ultimately, if we end up in a world where there's sort of a broad middle class, a broad kind of equality, I think we will own very little."

Written & produced by Adam Killick.