What does it mean to “own” something?

I’m sure there are legal definitions, but most of us believe that once we purchase an item, we own it. Our relationship with that object shifts from ogler to owner in the blink of a cash register transaction.

Ownership also happens when we make things, find them, discover them, or purchase or raise pets and livestock. But how long does this ownership relationship last?

In the country of India, a car is stolen every 6 minutes, but in the State of Texas, a car is stolen every 5.5 minutes. Ownership can be either relinquished, or severed, in the proverbial blink of an eye.

As every businessperson knows, theft is a major problem with most viewing some percentage loss as unavoidable. However, that attitude is about to change.

With improved security systems, vehicle theft has been dropping since 1998, and will be all but eliminated by 2030 with the Internet of Things.

By 2020 over 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. By 2030, virtually every item of value will become traceable with tiny electronic sensors, known as smart dust, manufactured into them.

Along with this level of traceability will come a number of other opportunities that I would like to explore, such as the complete elimination of theft. But not everything with this technology will be welcomed with open arms.

The “Can We, Should We” Debate

Next generation manufacturing will have the ability to automatically embed smart dust particles with sensors and transmitters into everything we own. Whenever a purchase occurs, items over a certain dollar value will be assigned to a personal ownership network that we control.

Sensors in our clothing, cars, jewelry, shoes, and homes will be primarily used to detect everything from air quality to health irregularities, but they will also alert an “owner” when a theft has occurred.

Whenever there is a “disturbance in the force,” officials will be notified.

This all sound good on the surface, but let’s dig a little deeper.

Our so-called intelligent systems have a way of bringing onerous rigidity into our lives. From a convenience standpoint, yes we can make systems that are very easy to use. Yet from a personal responsibility standpoint, it holds us to an accountability standard that may be impossible for most to achieve.

In analyzing a system like this, it’s always important to search for the unintended consequences. This doesn’t mean we need to decide the fate of this yet-to-be-invented technology on a few ill-conceived edge cases, but from a fully informed citizen of the future position, it helps to start interlocking the big picture puzzle pieces early.

Future Ownership Scenario

A phrase often associated with Benjamin Franklin is “A place for everything and everything in its place.” This scenario takes that model to the logical extreme.

In 2030, every purchase over $50, or what ever minimum you choose, is automatically assigned to our “personal ownership network.” Tagging chips built-in to these items automatically provide a full description of the product, serial numbers, date of purchase, manufacturing details, and more. All of this information is transferred into your personal ownership network, an intelligent software system designed to manage everything you own.

Ownership in the past has been a loosely defined relationship between us and our possessions. More expensive items such as land, buildings, and businesses typically come with legal titles to help validate ownership, but many items, such as jewelry, came with scant proof of title. And after the original purchase, an item’s possession trail has been murky, at best, with donations, gifting, and resales offering little evidence to validate what took place.

Over time, most of what we own will either increase or decrease in value based on market conditions, but we have very little understanding of these deviations.

Think in terms of a typical middle class family that owns a house, cars, boats, tools, appliances, computers, collectables, rare coins, jewelry, pets, stocks, bonds, software, insurance policies, and more.

Personal ownership networks will be designed to keep up-to-the-second information on current valuations, historical data, photo and video records, and the real-time location of each item. Items that drop below the assigned minimum will fall off the radar and no longer be tracked.

In addition to tracking an item’s real-time location, the ownership network will also track any changes to the condition of the object. As an example, if someone decides to key your car, it will know instantly, turn on surveillance cameras and identity sensors, and alert authorities.

When items are transferred, sold, donated, loaned out, pawned, or given away, responsibility for those items is then shifted from one ownership network to another.

Future transactions will no longer be this easy

Unintended Consequences

Many items we purchase have little value after they’ve been used or consumed. Here are a few examples:

  • An expensive prescription loses value as it’s consumed.
  • Vacation packages, hotel stays, and airline tickets lose their value after they’ve been used.
  • Education and training has value until the time a course is taken. Purchasing a seat in a class may or may not be transferrable.
  • Concert or event tickets have value until the time of the event, and they also may or may not be transferrable.
  • Intellectual property such as patents, trademarks, and copyrights have varying degrees of value based on market demand and the type of rights being claimed.
  • Gift cards have many restrictions and often come with an expiration date.

Yes, most of these items may be more effectively managed through an ownership network, but by describing some of their characteristics you can also see some of the messiness that will likely come into play.

Other unintended consequences may involve people attempting to lay claim to such things as horses or buffalo on the open range, unassigned archives in a museum, un-copyrighted material, or any unsold inventory.

It’s also not clear whether we would track currency. If nothing else is stealable, the only option may be to steal cash.

In most cases though, theft suddenly transitions from an overt act of stealing, such as armed robbery, to hackers breaking into ownership networks and changing the underlying records and path of possession.

Perhaps the biggest unintended consequences will stem from the incremental loss of privacy and the ever-increasing levels of transparency needed to function in a future society.

Transitioning from hardened criminals to young hackers

Final Thoughts

As the probability of getting caught approaches 100%, the likelihood of someone committing a crime drops precipitously.

At the same time, it would be nice to think that we could eliminate theft altogether, but ownership networks will naturally come with their own flaws. Most will require far more attention than we currently pay to our assets. This, of course, can be both good and bad.

Identity theft will be more difficult and easier to spot as our identities become linked with ownership networks. Purchases assigned to other ownership networks will be instantly flagged.

Most concerning, though, will be our loss of anything resembling privacy in the future. Virtually everyone who has made it into the history books has been a rule-breaker. Yet for all the accolades we heap upon past rebels who zigged left when everyone else zagged right, future versions of today’s luminaries, responsible for much of the world we live in, will face instant scrutiny in a micro-monitored future.

Whenever I attempt to break new ground with a topic like this, I’m generally not seeing the whole picture. So please take a moment to weigh in and let us know your thoughts.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

14 Responses to “The End of Theft”

Comments List

  1. Blake Walter

    Won't this kind of electronic "proof" of ownership also open up new horizons for theft? If I can reprogram your "smart dust" to say it's my "smart dust" (or, more likely, reprogram the inventory system that keeps track of all the smart dust), can't I pull the capitalistic equivalent of an identity theft? As the old adage goes, nothing is fool-proof because fools are so ingenious. China seems to be making hay with our online military secrets; I suspect other criminals will manage to stay ahead of the technology curve, too, no matter how deeply we embed the code in the Internet of Things.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Blake, You may be right, We may just open the doors for a higher echelon of criminals, hackers with Masters and PhDs rather than thugs with guns. Keep in mind, the more dependent we become on technology, the more breaking points we create along the way. Tom
  2. Herbert Rust

    If our society does evolve with the loss of privacy as you surmise, then I predict the time will come when individuals, couples and families will take time to opt out and go on vacation where the "new" system does not yet exist. It does not exist either because it is a remote location less evolved than our "new society" or it has been purposefully "cleansed" so you can, at least temporarily drop out. Or is it possible that specific cities, states or zones will be created which make the new electronic "knows all, sees all" society will be declared illegal or even unconstitutional.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Herbert, Thanks for your comments. I like to think about the idea of force-field serving as a protective dome over a designated geographical area. Perhaps this force field could have signal jammers built in soas to be impenetrable by wireless signals. Maybe in the future we'll have a Betty Ford Center for people with extreme device withdrawals. (We may need that now) I would hope it wouldn't come to that, but writing new public policy in these areas is very difficult, and changing faster than good policy can be formulated. Tom
  3. Brian Hayashi

    Technology may slow petty theft but it dramatically widens the possibilities for rapacious individuals who both understand the law and are psychotic enough to disregard the possible consequences. Witness the ATM theft recently in NYC, or consider the equity-to-debt conversion process...both require understanding of the systems involved, the limittions of enforcement, and in exchange the possibility of a huge payout. Like hacking, the concept of theft will surely evolve.
  4. Michael Cushman

    Everything and everyone being visible and accounted for also will reduce violent crime (but not eliminated it, since some people commit violence by impulse today, and "getting caught" never enters the equation). Does adultery become impossible? Will that mean people will push for multiple definitions of marriage? Will more illegal drugs become legal, since the need won't go away, but the ability to obtain illegal drugs will diminish? What will happen to prisons? If criminals are "always-caught", shouldn't we let most of the people in prison out? As automation takes most jobs, will the welfare state explode? No jobs, no crime (a large hidden transfer-of-wealth system), no income seems like mass starvation and homelessness, rioting, unless people are somehow supported, right? We have many unintended consequences from many radical forces of change coming, don't we?
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Michael, You bring up some great points. It certainly won't stop crimes of passion or eliminate impulsive actions. But it could certainly eliminate any uncertainty as to who did something. The need for cops and courts would plummet. Hopefully the number of prisoners in prison would also plummet. I don't see people losing income totally because of job loss or we would suddenly have anarchy in the streets. Unless we improve our job creation systems, we'll be growing a far larger welfare state. Much of life is based on uncertainty. Gray areas create tons of jobs. As we move up the ladder of knowability, the loss of gray areas will force a number of things to happen. Lawyers will attempt to create new laws to perpetuate uncertainty, but the rest of society will move more towards what you're suggesting, legalizing a broader spectrum of personal behaviors previously deemed outside the social norm. We will invariable find ourselves drowning in edge case scenarios as we debate the issues and try to rethink societal ethics and redraw the boundaries between right and wrong with crystal clear dividing lines. Or we could just let the lawyers win and continue on with unconscionable levels of messiness as is now the case. Which do you think will win? Tom
  5. Mick Steele

    Hi Tom, Unfortunately, the ultimate way of possession is loss of possession. We all ultimately die, and our 'possessions' either end up in an auction house or maybe some items of value are inherited by the next generation. By attributing all possessions to an individual, this makes them less mobile and intrinsically modifies their value in monetary terms. This is why cash is so valued (and sometimes gold) due to it's anonymous mobility and transference. A future of 'rented' items would be more sensibles, as ownership doesn't cloud the possession. I recently had a conversation with a lady who's house was burgled and a lot of her valuables items and jewelery were stolen. Her insurance company paid out for the losses, but interestingly, the lady didn't replace her jewelery, just spent the money on holidays instead. I think this is a lesson in the sense that we accumulate possessions, but rarely do we appreciate them and use them everyday. Theft of possessions would not be a problem if we never owned them in the first place.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Mick, Some great points here. The richest person in the world is not the one who owns the most, but rather the one who needs the least. A few month ago I wrote a post about us transitioning from just-in-case to just-in-time living. For the most part, we own items "just in case" we need them. With better logistics and better distribution systems, it would be far better to wait until the last minute to buy, lease, or rent the item we need. Since rental businesses have not been very consumer friendly, the rental option rarely makes sense. But that seems to be changing. Zip Car is a car rental business that allows you to rent by the hour without having to wait in line and sign tons of paperwork. You "rent" the car through your smart phone, get in and drive away. Wouldn't it be great if you could do something similar with jewelry, furniture, power tools, computers, etc? However, in the background, a business still owns the items. I don't think it's possible to eliminate ownership entirely. Tom
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Herve, Good question. Cash may also be tagged, but there has been great resistance to do so up to this point. It remains our only form of truly anonymous currency. It's not just the illegal businesses that benefit from it, but many do not want the prying eyes of government to know how much wealth someone has socked away. Tom
  6. Mick Steele

    Tom, Quite agree. The 'just in time' principle is a great notion. With a world of depleting resource, the re-cycling on an active basis of 'stuff' would be an alternative to a 'produce to consume and recycle' basis. The energy saved alone would warrant it! However, we have all rented a second hand suit before.....!
  7. Chadwick Heller

    Perhaps the premise is wrong - or backwards. Although I agree that there will be sensors like smart dust in everything in the near future, what if it is done NOT for the benefit of the consumer but, rather, for the benefit of the company that made the product or device? A company would then, perhaps in secret, be able to collect the most important data about their product that they could ever want; how it's used, when its used, how long it is used, by whom it is used and where etc.. But also, think how law enforcement or criminals could harness this stuff. Either one of them could drive by your home and get almost a complete inventory of what is inside. But anyway, it is likely that companies will incorporate this into their products without the consumers knowledge. I mean, how many people buy clothes from Walmart and are completely unaware that each piece of clothing has its own RFID tag on it or in it? Probably not many.
  8. Riche

    Hi, Having watched Kester Brewin's TED talk on "What our love of pirates tells us about renewing the commons" I'm of the view that we need even less ownership and more sharing. To quote Jean-Jacques Rousseau " are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." R

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