A friend’s comment in an email message to me this morning started the wheels turning. He suggested the possibility that posts on one’s blogs or on Facebook might be like property. I tried to wrap my mind around it. That’s where it started this morning. But it morphed into questions of whether the concept of property has legitimacy, whether in words or in things more tangible.
The writer puts his words on the “market” as if they were offered, like real estate, for sale. Instead of the “consideration” being cash, the words (or the ideas they support) trade for comments. Or maybe there’s no “buyer.” The property goes unsold. I might be the owner or I might be the real estate agent or I might be both. I’m the guy facilitating the commerce of language. I engage in trade.
But what about comments on blog posts? They take up space on “real estate” that belongs to me! I should be able to charge a rental fee, shouldn’t I? My mind races. I try to make sense of it. But the concept begins to unravel as I consider what it is that I own.
How can I “own” anything? When all’s said and done, isn’t all we use and all we see and all we read in the public domain?
We try to capture parts of our environment for ourselves and we believe those parts we capture belong to us, but we are not property owners. We’re staking a claim to something. We’re attempting to prevent someone else from staking that claim. We may allow someone else access to our home. We may allow someone else to borrow our car. We may allow someone else to read our books. At some point, everything over which we claim “ownership” ceases to belong to us. We may sell it or, when we die, it may pass on to an heir or to the state. That transfer, like the ownership that preceded it, is simply an abstraction that societies have decreed as real. It’s a lot like religion in that regard.
“Real property,” land ownership, is an odd thing. The land was here before we were, yet we claim to own it. We (or our forebears) have cared for the land and improved it; we’ve cultivated it and groomed it and enhanced its appearance. By doing those things, we assert ownership of land that, heretofore, was not “owned.” A hair stylist could use the same logic to claim ownership of the hair on your head.
And so I come to a conclusion reached long ago by people who roamed North America well before the Europeans arrived. We are not owners. We are simply stewards. Not just stewards of the land, but of all the things to which we claim ownership. The computer with which I am recording these thoughts is not my property; it is simply in my possession at the moment. The same goes for my car, my couch, and my house.
It’s hard, this early in the morning and with such a short time to prepare, to reach conclusions about how “stewardship responsibilities” might replace “ownership rights” but I’m working on it. And I’m nearing the point of rejecting, outright, the concept of ownership. But that may be a temporary thing. Another cup of coffee may change everything.