Hey folks. It’s Lauren Goode here, filling in for Steven Levy. My original plan was to make this week’s newsletter about dating apps, because that just might be the topic Steven is least likely to ever write about. But I’ve been asked to hold that story until next month, so you’ll have to wait until then to read all about the dating lives of elder millennials (sample of one). For now, let’s visit another topic that is near and, honestly, dearer to me: ownership of our devices, and the philosophical discussion that’s been forced by software becoming a part of all of our experiences.

Heated seats put me to sleep, quite literally. But it was impossible to sleep on the news a few weeks ago that BMW had started rolling out subscriptions for seat heating in some vehicles in South Korea. It’s not clear when exactly BMW started offering this, or in which countries outside of South Korea this $18-per-month service would be available, but the article in The Verge rightly noted that the “auto industry is racing towards a future of microtransactions.” Shortly after, Tesla said that new Tesla orders would require a subscription for navigation services.

So, what do we actually own when we buy a new car these days? Or, any piece of hardware for that matter? It’s a question I posed to law professor Aaron Perzanowski, who has written two books on this very topic: The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy, with Jason Schultz, and The Right to Repair: Reclaiming The Things We Own. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Lauren Goode: A lot of people saw the report on BMW as a turning point in this new era of un-ownership. Maybe part of that is because it’s also somewhat ridiculous—seat heaters, of all things. But really this has been evolving for a long time. What was the first instance you recall of physical, tangible things we supposedly own transforming into a lease model or licensing model because of digital assets?

Aaron Perzanowski: So, the early work that I did on these questions with Jason Schultz really started out focusing on digital media. And I think that’s where a lot of these trends have their origins. Because traditional ideals of ownership play out differently, as a practical matter, when you’re talking about digital movies and books. And I think part of what we’re witnessing is the importation of some strategies. In the digital space, subscription models found some real excitement among consumers. And I think quite naturally companies that make hardware and physical products saw the attraction of those kinds of renewable revenue streams that media companies were starting to enjoy. So the strategy here, the blueprint, really draws from the media space.

Is it really the same though? What’s the difference between people happily paying for Netflix and Spotify, and paying for their seats being heated up or maps in their car? I wonder if car makers might be underestimating the potential for negative impact here.

I think it’s a really important question—whether consumers will be as willing to follow this path in the physical good space as they are with respect to digital media. And I think you’ve seen car makers in particular dip their toes into these waters a few times before. The BMW heated seats have gotten a lot of attention over the past few weeks, but this is not the first time car makers have tried this sort of thing, and I think they’re trying to get a sense of what the consumer backlash is going to look like before they move more aggressively into this space.

One example I can think of was either Mercedes or BMW, three or four years ago [Editor’s note: It was BMW, in 2018], started charging for access to Apple’s CarPlay. So if you wanted to just plug in your phone and you know, use all of those wonderful features that are tied to the hardware of the phone, you would have to pay a monthly fee for it. That’s just one example of a company trying out a strategy that was slightly more software-based than hardware based, but I think those lines are pretty blurry at this point. CarPlay is a functionality that’s built into the phone hardware and the vehicle hardware, and they were trying to extract additional revenue there. I don’t think that went very well.

Driving the conversation away from cars for a bit: When your first book came out in 2016, the idea of the “end of ownership” was different, right? You focused on streaming media in your book, but at the time there was a lot of emphasis on services like Airbnb and Uber and the idea that you don’t need to own your own home, or own your own car, because we’re living in a service economy. There was a convenient moral value attached to this, like, just own less stuff. I’m wondering what you think has been the biggest evolution in thinking around that over the past five or six years, because we’ve certainly started to see some of the flaws in those ideas.

I can understand and kind of identify to a certain degree with that kind of optimism that we were seeing in certain spaces in that era. There is a certain kind of efficiency in not owning things that you don’t actually need. I own a lawnmower. I use my lawnmower, I don’t know, once every two weeks? I’m sure my neighbors wish I used it more often. Do I really need to have it sitting there 24 hours a day, seven days a week at my disposal, or would it be better if my neighborhood owned a lawnmower and we, like, coordinated in a way that allowed us to make more efficient use of that resource? I see the value in that.

But I think consumers have started to become more wary of the motivations of the companies that are offering us these other alternatives, other paths. I think there’s a sense that people are starting to understand that these new offerings are designed in a way that reduces consumer surplus. That takes away the value from us as individuals, and shifts that value to the person who’s selling us the product with the subscription attached, or the person who is selling us access to their fleet of scooters or their employees-slash-non-employee drivers for their ride hailing app or whatever it might be.

So, I think consumers rightly and reasonably have become more cynical and more skeptical of a lot of these sorts of offerings. And I think that’s especially true going back to the car example. Part of the reason the story about BMW had that traction is the sense that, even though we don’t fully understand the details of how the services are going to roll out and what the pricing plan is going to be and whether or not it’s ultimately a good deal, this is another opportunity for a really big, powerful company to screw over consumers. It follows in line with printer companies that hold your printer hostage if the credit card you use to buy your ink supply expires. I think we’ve grown to be more distrustful over time.

What happens next in terms of ownership models? How likely is it that we’ll see some sort of regulation or consumer protection emerge around this?

I think a lot depends on exactly how these programs, how these transactions are structured and communicated. I think it’s highly unlikely that the Federal Trade Commission or any other regulator or state attorney general is going to come out and say, “You absolutely cannot offer these particular sets of features on a subscription basis.” I think what they’re likely to say is, ‘You have to communicate this transaction in a clear way, in a way that gives consumers notice ahead of time, in a way that is ultimately nondeceptive and fair.’

The other question that I think is really crucial here, and speaks directly to the question of ownership, is how these kinds of subscription programs interface with secondary markets for vehicles or other products. So if I buy a vehicle and pay a one-time fee for lifetime access to heated seats, does that lifetime access transfer? And we don’t have the contractual language that would answer that question, and I think it’s incredibly problematic if a new owner has to repurchase or start subscribing to features that were already paid for, by an initial buyer, as built-in features. And that is a kind of under-the-radar tax on the unused car market. So I have concerns along those lines as well.

Maybe in the meantime, the best thing consumers can do is just push back. The streaming services are dealing with more subscribers who just watch and cancel, watch and cancel. I admit, I’ve been doing it. If it’s heated car seats, maybe you’re pushing back by only subscribing when it’s winter time and after that, canceling. You’re making your experience intermittent. It’s an inconvenience, but it’s also inconvenient to be forced to rent all of the services on top of the thing you’ve bought.

Yeah, one of the first things I thought when I saw the stories about the heated seats was that from the consumer’s perspective, it’s pretty straightforward: Just subscribe when it’s cold out! But I imagine the people in the accounting offices [at the automakers] are smarter than me and had already thought about that. Which makes me think either there’s going to be a set of restrictions on your ability to opt in and opt out … or, maybe this ultimately is just an experiment, one with a relatively low-stakes feature, to see whether people are willing to pay more to unlock extra bells and whistles. And the real plan is to do this with the whole range of vehicle functionality eventually.

In the long run, companies are really interested in developing these ongoing revenue streams that go beyond a singular purchase every three or five or six years. That’s why Apple has Apple Music and TV+ and iCloud and all of these other services, right? Because it’s not enough to buy a new phone every couple of years. Car makers are following a similar kind of strategy.

And you might be right in that if consumers push back and say, ‘No, we’re just not going to do it,’ or, ‘We’re going to figure out a way to game the system,’ then maybe that sends a signal that this is not going to be an advantageous strategy for them in the market.

I decided to take a little stroll through WIRED’s archives room in our San Francisco office and thumb through the issue from exactly ten years ago. WIRED’s September 2012 cover story was titled “Apocalypse Not,” while the subtitle, painfully, read “Climate collapse. Mass starvation. Deadly pandemics. Get a grip.”

The story was a valiant attempt by writer Matt Ridley to point out that many of our “promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life As We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize,” despite our collective apocaholism. As such, why worry about climate change? Our pending deaths from chemicals, disease, overpopulation, dwindling resources … all greatly exaggerated!

“The truth is, a new global pandemic is growing less likely, not more. Mass migration to cities means the opportunity for viruses to jump from wildlife to the human species has not yet risen and has possibly even declined, despite media hype to the contrary. Water and insect-borne infections—generally the most lethal—are declining … It’s true that casual-contact infections such as colds are thriving—but only by being mild enough that their victims can soldier on with work and social engagements, thereby allowing the virus to spread,” the article reads.

In a word, yikes.

Ridley’s conclusive sentence here, however, was spot on: “Even if a lethal virus does go global, the ability of medical science to sequence its genome and device a vaccine or cure is getting better all the time.”

I loved this question from Jane, sent via Instagram DM: “Fun: What are you most excited for in tech? Philosophical: Can you really design new products/services while taking into account their larger impact? Fortune: What should I invest in?”

Fun: I’m looking forward to seeing what Apple has up its sleeve—or on its head?—with its rumored mixed reality headset. Although, I think it’s very unlikely this is something we’ll see at Apple’s September 7 event …

Philosophical: The short answer is yes, but the long answer is a lot more complicated. One of the tech industry’s most notable characteristics, and also its fatal flaw, is its obsession with scale. It’s a word I hear a lot—and always ask about—when reporting on various companies, whether it’s a battery maker trying to build denser batteries, a social media company trying to enforce content moderation policies, or even a sweater maker attempting to make more sustainable clothing through 3D knitting. Sure, they want to Do Better—but can they?

There is always the option to grow less quickly, design more carefully, or just make fewer. But at what cost—and at how much chagrin to the venture capitalists who are expecting a fast return on their investments? And how much of this is tied to our own consumption habits, our endless scrolling, or our desire to buy new things every year? There’s not a straightforward solution here, Jane, but I hope that the people staking claim to this next version of the web or those building the next generation of products find a way to de-emphasize our collective fixation on scale.

Fortune: Not bitcoin, at this particular moment.

I’m not an investor (and our ethics policies preclude us from investing in the companies we cover), but we do think a lot about the future here at WIRED. I’ll say this: When I was reading that “old” issue of WIRED, from 10 whole years ago, I noticed the last page was a mockup of “The Future of Shopping Centers.” A giant touchscreen display, parked at the bottom of the escalators in a shopping mall, guided shoppers to the “Soylent Julius” shop, the “Avon Five-Minute Rhinoplasty” counter, and the “Amazon On-Demand Printing and Fabrication” kiosk. All fine and well enough—I mean, these ideas weren’t totally off. What’s been most disrupted within the mall, though, is the mall itself; the container for these futuristic experiences, one we assumed would hold the same form forever. Maybe chew on that as you consider your next big investment.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

Not now, Superstorm.

Relevant to my end-of-ownership conversation, you must read Lily Hay Newman’s story on the latest antics out of Def Con, a well-known hackers conference.

We also talked about Def Con and the John Deere hack on this week’s Gadget Lab podcast.

The Google search experience has gotten, in a word, bad. And even more dangerous than the many ads might be the information cards, which are sometimes erroneous and could “mislead the public on issues of grave importance to sustaining our democracy.”

Time for back to school—and, in case you missed it, school systems might be spying on your kids through their devices.

No one cares about my framed NFT art. Sad!

If you can swing it, get a good office chair. No, really. As someone who has experienced intermittent tingling and numbness in her hands over the past year, a good office chair has saved me. Fortunately, the Gear team has tried a bunch, and they’re not all $2,000 chairs.

That’s a wrap for now. Until next week, when Steven makes his triumphant return and saves you all from hearing about my dating app woes.

Updated 8/19/2022 12:15 pm ET: This story has been updated to reflect that “Apocalypse Not” appeared on WIRED’s cover in September 2012, not 2013 as previously stated.

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