Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Availability Replaces Ownership

I bought a DVD the other day, something which was mildly notable in that I almost never buy any DVDs anymore. Once upon a time I had a movie library instinct which worked on nearly the same scale as my book library instinct. I had a steadily growing collecting of VHS and later DVDs of the sort of movies (many of them either foreign or obscure) that I liked and yet could never find on the shelves of the local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video.

What initially stalled the growth of my movie library was the lack of time for watching non-kid-suitable movies which afflicts many tired young parents, but over the last couple years we've gradually reacquired our evening leisure time (though sometimes only at the expense of many tears when 8pm rolls around and the monkeys are marched upstairs) and started to watch movies or TV shows on DVD 1-2 nights a week. And yet now we almost never buy movies, and the ones we do have are sealed up in boxes in the garage.

The difference is Netflix.

Since Netflix has practically every movie on DVD available on three days notice, it's become very easy to overcome my library building urge when it comes to movies. In essence, having access to Netflix becomes a substitute for owning the movie, and so the only movies I've picked up in the last several years have been movies that we'd be likely to want to watch all the time (some kids movies, and a few movies that we often feel like crashing with when tired and stressed.)

This strikes me as an interesting example of how a community resource can replace the need for people to own things individually. No one has restricted my ability to own movies, but having been provided (at a fairly nominal monthly cost) with a resource that replaces (and expands on) the benefits of building a movie library, I simply have no desire any more. For those who worry greatly about the impact to society and the environment of everyone wanting to own more things, Netflix is perhaps a good example of the sort of thing which declutters the world while actually pleasing people more.

The challenge is, many of the suggestions for reducing consumption which are pressed upon us are significantly inferior to the more consumption heavy alternative. Public transit is all very well, but for many of us it simply doesn't go where we want to go when we want to go there or is in fact more expensive in absolute terms than driving. One may appreciate the virtues of the old urban neighborhood with everything near by, but not enough to want to cram a family of six into a small flat. Etc.

But if one can come up with a collective resource which actually provides a better experience than personal ownership, people will quite happily jump aboard.

I find it had to imagine ever dropping my book acquisition instinct, but I imagine that if I had truly easy access to a library large enough or fluid enough that I could reliably find nearly any book that I wanted in it, I would drastically reduce my book buying activities. (As it stands, our local public libray is mostly only useful for children's books, very basic non fiction needs, and fairly common or best-selling fiction.)


Scoutsigns said...

Ah, hopefully this will become the Netflix of the book world:

Paperbacks, hardcovers and college textbooks.

Jim Janknegt said...

I have experienced the same thing with DVDs and Netflix.

Being a UT employee, I have access to all of their libraries and the main one is only 5 minutes away. I have greatly reduced my book buying since I can check books out of the library and I am able to renew them online. It's great. I also use the public library to a lesser degree. As the economy continues to nosedive I bet the libraries get more of a work out.

Due to the huge number of books in the world compared to DVDs I think it will be hard for a book service to appeal to the same kinds of folks that Netflix appeals to.

mrsdarwin said...

I'd agree with you, Jim. One of the things that I like about Netflix is that it carries harder-to-find movies -- the sort of thing with which your neighborhood Blockbuster would never clutter it shelves because you'd be the only person who'd ever check it out. But I think a rent-a-book service just isn't going to cut it for those who want to have their books on hand for reference or just so they can savor a good passage one more time.

Brandon said...

I still buy a crazy number of books (books are my third biggest expense each month after rent and food), but since I'm often in libraries as a matter of course (ACC, UT, and the public library around the corner from me), I think that does keep my book acquisition down a bit. I shudder to think of how much I'd be buying (particularly since I'm right around the corner from a Half Price Books as well) if I didn't have any libraries available.

Meredith said...

I enjoyed this analysis! We don't use Netflix, but we are weekly library patrons. I think our city library system, with its online catalog and request features,has near completely replaced our home library.

That we can walk to it down the street is just an added bonus.