I subscribe, therefore I am?

Dave Lee
North America technology reporter

Image source, Getty Images

Imagine my distress when, around about the time my internet went down, it struck me: I don’t really own anything.

It’s precisely three years since I moved across the world to take up this job. Offered a container to cart my belongings to America, I instead decided to shed most of the belongings I’d gathered over the first 28 years of my life.

I expected, as time went on, to gradually replace those things with new stuff. American stuff.

But instead, just like you, I’ve become one of life’s subscribers.

Looking around my (rented) flat, what happened to my box sets? Now a Netflix subscription. My music? Spotify. My books? Kindle.

If I’m going out, forget the car -  it’s Uber or Lyft. Staying in? Takeaway food via Doordash or GrubHub.

If I am cooking for myself, I get my ingredients via meal kit service Blue Apron, or from my local Whole Foods - where I can enjoy the Amazon Prime checkout lane because, naturally, I subscribe to that too.

Image caption,
This is what I turned up with three years ago, and little has been added since

I do at least own a beard -  I decided to grow it after cancelling my subscription for replacement razor blades. I’m now considering paying a monthly fee for a toothbrush service, since Quip’s ads seem to be stalking me around the internet.

Recently I learned about start-up Feather, which offers subscription plans for furniture inside your home. For less than $10-per-month you can subscribe to a bed. Now there's an idea: Subscribe to a bed.

Sweet spot

People like me are huge for business. Some think we may even be the future of it.

The subscription economy has grown 100% each year for the past five years, according to McKinsey and Company. It surveyed US consumers and found that of those that shopped online 15% had signed up to a recurring purchase of some kind (not including services like Netflix).

It’s a tough business to be in, though. Convincing someone to buy something not just once but continually is a massive challenge -  and even if a company does manage to get us in the subscription sweet spot, with ease of use comes a fickle consumer: when a subscription isn’t working out, we don’t hesitate to cancel it.

And then there are the services that aren’t subscriptions per se, like Uber, but still replace big one-off buys.

“The must-haves for previous generations aren’t as important for millennials,” remarked a study by Goldman Sachs.

“They’re putting off major purchases -  or avoiding them entirely.”

The question is, does it matter?

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Subscription services such as Netflix and Spotify have revolutionised how we consume entertainment

I guess not owning things means I don’t have any clutter. And having the ability turn the tap on-and-off when it comes to my luxuries is an efficient way to maximise your paycheque. But with subscriptions you lose a safety net. A loss of job could mean a loss of just about everything.

And what about me? Who am I if I don’t own anything? A record collection isn’t just a database of files, as Spotify would have you believe, but a physical embodiment of a journey: your journey, to be precise.

I bet right now if I asked you to name your first record, you could tell me in an instant*. But what was the first song you ever streamed? You don’t know. Why would you? It meant nothing - because you didn’t own it.


Owning something is to be in control. That great phrase, to “own it”, imbues at the very least a pretence of comforting stability. It’s power, safety and predictability. There will never be a day when someone encourages you ahead of a tough day by urging you to “go out and subscribe to it!”.

Owning a house is considered such an important goal that elections are won and lost on our ability to achieve it.

We also attach more value and emotion to objects when we consider them to be ours  - a trait we develop from an early age, in what psychologists refer to as the “endowment effect”.

In one study, explained in depth here in a terrific video essay, toddlers became upset when told their favourite toy would be taken away, even though they were immediately given an exact copy.

As we grow older we also come to revere objects owned by people we love (like grandparents) or respect (like sports people).

Ownership comes with downsides, of course. We become protectionist, and afraid of change. A loss of something you own can be a devastating, life-changing incident. When it happens to a lot of us at once, we call it a depression.

But no amount of reflection will reverse the subscription trend. Much like my strained relationship with T-Mobile, we’re now apparently locked-in until the end of time.

Yet there is one thing we millennials won’t eagerly subscribe to - and that’s marriage. Down 50% (for the age group) since the sixties. So maybe we just have issues with commitment?

(*The Mr Blobby single, thanks for asking.)

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