While there has been much discussion in recent weeks over the many
changes taking place in our way of life as a result of the high-tech
economy, the single biggest change is occurring relatively unnoticed: The
near-warp speed of the new hypercapitalism is beginning to make ownership
itself an outmoded concept. The implications of this are enormous and
So much of the world we know has been bound up in the process of
selling, buying and owning things that we can't imagine any other way of
structuring human affairs. Yet the concept of "property," which once
drove men to ideological battles, revolutions and wars, slowly is dying
out in the wake of a new constellation of economic realities. Society is
rethinking the kinds of bonds and boundaries that will define human
relations in the coming century.
In the new era, markets are making way for "networks," and ownership
is steadily being replaced by "access." This doesn't mean the concept of
property will disappear in what is becoming known as the Age of Access.
Yet property is far less likely to be exchanged in markets.
Instead, those who do own property increasingly will hold on to it and
lease, rent or charge an admission fee, subscription or membership dues
for its short-term use. Markets will remain but play an increasingly
diminished role in human affairs.
Some businesses already are well along the way toward the transition
from ownership to access. They are selling off real estate, shrinking
inventories, leasing equipment and outsourcing activities in a
life-or-death race to rid themselves of every conceivable kind of
physical property. Many companies, for example, no longer think of
purchasing capital equipment but rather borrow what they need in the form
of a lease. Today, nearly one-third of all the business machines,
equipment and transportation fleets in the U.S. are leased, allowing
companies to be flexible in fast-changing markets and when faced with
Being stuck with outdated plants, obsolete equipment and antiquated
business systems and processes is a prescription for failure. The new
thinking in the business community is, when in doubt, farm it out.
"Outsourcing" has quickly become the new mantra of the access economy.
Intellectual capital, on the other hand, is the driving force of the
new era. What is really being bought and sold today are ideas and images.
The physical embodiment of these ideas and images becomes increasingly
secondary to the economic process. If the industrial marketplace was
characterized by the exchange of things, the network economy is
characterized by access to concepts, carried inside physical forms.
Nike is perhaps the best example of the new commercial forces at work.
Nike is, for all intents and purposes, a virtual company. While the
public is likely to think of the company as a manufacturer of athletic
footwear, the company is really a research and design studio with a
sophisticated marketing formula and distribution mechanism. Although it
is the world's leading manufacturer of athletic shoes, Nike owns no
factories, machines, equipment or real estate to speak of.
Instead, Nike has established an extensive network of
suppliers--called "production partners"--in Southeast Asia that produce
its hundreds of designer shoes and other gear. Nike's real business is
selling concepts. The shoes are merely containers for those concepts.
In the future, the race is likely to go to the new weightless
companies like Nike that are unencumbered by ownership of large amounts
Consumers are also following suit. Today, one out of every three
automobiles and trucks on the U.S. roads is leased--still another sign of
the shift from ownership to access. Ford Motor Co., for its part, would
be just as happy turning customers into clients and shifting from selling
vehicles to providing access to a driving experience.
As for homeownership, while it remains strong, Americans are
increasingly opting for time-shares rather than purchasing a vacation or
retirement home, preferring to pay for the time they spend in the house
rather than paying for the house itself. Temporal estates are replacing
This change in the basic way we think about our relationship to the
things we use, from products we buy to services we access, is part of the
vast restructuring going on in the capitalist system as it makes the
transformation from a goods-producing to a service-performing and
experience-generating economy. Our long attachment to ownership is
beginning to weaken. It is likely that for a growing number of
enterprises and consumers, the very idea of ownership will seem limited,
even old-fashioned, 25 years from now.
Ownership is based on the idea that possessing a physical asset or
piece of property over an extended period of time is valuable. Now,
however, the speed of technological innovation and the dizzying pace of
economic activity make everything almost immediately outdated. To have,
to hold and to accumulate in an economy in which change itself is the
only constant makes less and less sense.
The very thought of leaving markets and the exchange of property
behind is as inconceivable to many people today as the enclosure and
privatization of land and labor into property relations must have been
more than half a millennium ago.
Still, a growing number of businesses and consumers already have
embarked on this new journey. In the 21st century, having access will be
as important as being propertied was in the 20th century.