The Free Illusion

The phrase “free is very expensive” suggests that even though something may not cost any money upfront, it may still come at a great cost. In other words, there may be hidden costs or consequences associated with something that appears to be free, which ultimately outweigh the initial savings.

One example of this is the concept of “free” apps or services on the internet. While many apps and services are free to download and use, they often come at a cost to the user’s privacy. These companies may collect and sell user data to advertisers, which can result in targeted ads, data breaches, and identity theft. Users may also have to deal with intrusive ads or limited functionality unless they pay for a premium version of the app or service.

Another example is the impact of “free” goods on the environment. Many products are sold at a low cost or given away for free, but they may be cheaply made or disposable, resulting in a significant amount of waste. The production and disposal of these items can have a negative impact on the environment and lead to long-term costs, such as pollution and resource depletion.

Additionally, the phrase can apply to personal relationships. When someone provides a lot of free support, advice, or services, it can create an expectation of unlimited availability, leading to strain on the relationship and potentially damaging it in the long run.

Overall, “free is very expensive” is a reminder that there are often hidden costs or consequences associated with things that seem too good to be true. It is important to consider the long-term impacts and potential hidden costs before making decisions, even if something appears to be free or low-cost upfront.

The Problem in Brief

We’re used to treating information as “free,” * but the price we pay for the illusion of “free” is only workable so long as most of the overall economy isn’t about information. But as technology advances in this century, our present intuition about the nature of information will be remembered as narrow and shortsighted. We can think of information narrowly only because sectors like manufacturing, energy, health care, and transportation aren’t yet particularly automated or ‘net-centric.

This could start to happen, for instance, once cars and trucks are driven by software instead of human drivers, 3D printers magically turn out what had once been manufactured goods, automated heavy equipment finds and mines natural resources, and robot nurses handle the material aspects of caring for the elderly. Software could be the final industrial revolution. It might subsume all the revolutions to come.

Maybe technology will then make all the needs of life so inexpensive that it will be virtually free to live well, and no one will worry about money, jobs, wealth disparities, or planning for old age but instead, we are probably heading into a period of hyper-unemployment, and the attendant political and social chaos. The outcome of chaos is unpredictable, and we shouldn’t rely on it to design our future.


“I haven’t sold my soul yet — well, maybe a couple bars of rhythm and blues here and there,”

― Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge

Biological Realism

Libertarians who oppose universal health care might argue that people should only have to pay for health care when they want it, since it’s a consumer choice. Similarly, the Pirate Party/Linux/openness crowd suggests that instead of making money from recordings, musicians should play live gigs. Both strategies only work reliably for those who will always be healthy and childless. In fact it works best if the person’s parents are still healthy and generous.

Any society that is composed of real biological people has to succeed at providing a balance to the frustrations of biological reality. There must be economic dignity, defined here as knowing you won’t fall off a cliff into abject poverty if you get sick, become a parent, or grow old or get stuck in damage control, helping their family and friends. The recent absurdities of the financial markets served to disenfranchise aging people in particular. Their savings, jobs, and equity evaporated.

Some decades from now all those idealistic people who contributed to open software or Wikipedia will be in the same position as today’s aging jazz musicians. We’ll help one per week through fund-raising on Reddit in order to feel good, even though on average that will be the equivalent of doing nothing.

If we choose to extricate culture away from capitalism while the rest of life is still capitalistic, culture will become Detroit. In fact, online culture increasingly resembles Detroit in many ways where some musicians survive by becoming refugees within the last dwindling pockets of the old-media world they were just assaulting a moment before.

I felt that you can’t have privacy without also forging a new form of private property in the information space . That’s what private property is for . There has to be space around a person for a person to be a person . If everything you share at all is suddenly commoditized by whoever has the biggest , baddest network computer , then you’re doomed to be a spied — upon information serf

Jaron Lanier

The promotion of abstract rights without economic rights is a bad deal for those who are left behind. If making music “ free ” would just result in no one being able to make a living when automation arrives. If the only value left is information (once cybernetics come to be perceived as doing all the work ) and information is to be “ free , ” then ordinary people will become valueless , from an economic point of view .

A primary task in imagining a sustainable information economy must be to imagine a sustainable model for transactions. A key idea that makes a transaction model sustainable is a kind of symmetry between buyer and seller, so that transactions harmonize with a social contract.

Earlier designs for the spread of information had required that records of provenance be maintained. Previous designs were centered on people, not data. Any piece accessed online could be traced to its origin. If there was a link between one thing and another thing on a network, the link went both ways. For example , if one person could download a file , the other person , from whom the file was downloaded, could be notified of who was doing the downloading. Therefore , everything that was downloaded was contextualized , artists could be paid , scammers could be identified , and so on .

Tim Berners — Lee chose to offer a different approach with the World Wide Web , one that was much easier to adopt in the short term, though we’ve paid dearly in the long term .The link went in only one direction. No one could tell if information had been copied. Artists wouldn’t be paid. Context would be lost . Scammers could hide.

The cyberspace way of thinking about bits in a network suggests that it’s a place where you float. You don’t count on help, and you have no responsibilities; you are free to roam. In the service of weightlessness , Internet retailers would not pay the same sales taxes as brick — and — mortar ones ; cloud companies wouldn’t have the same responsibilities to monitor whether they were making money off copyright violations or forgeries.

It would be possible for people to connect without the awkwardness that always attend between free , distinct individuals .Accountability was recast as a burden or a friction , since it costs money ; an affront to weightlessness.

The dream was democracy unburdened by politics . Freedom unburdened by other people’s rights . Anarchy without peril . You get to pick the fruit of the land, the free content. It’s the cowboy idea. Ultimately , though , the top beneficiaries are those who own the biggest cloud computers , just as the real Wild West was all about who owned the railroads and the mines.

The only way to do it was to make people less real . You can’t go around redesigning people . That’s fascism . You have to let people invent themselves, even if they’re annoying. But that’s what we love about humanity, right ? The open — ended unpredictability, the diversity.


When a social contract works, you recognize that what’s good for others is ultimately good for you, too, even if it might not seem so at a particular moment. In a particular moment, having to pay for something might not seem so good for you. Ultimately, being paid by other people as part of the deal more than makes up for the initial sacrifice. That also means you empathize with the needs of those who sell to you, because you sometimes play the role of seller.

Right now it might seem draconian to charge for access to information we have come to expect for free, but it would feel very different if you knew that other people were also paying you at the same time for information services you have fractionally contributed to in the course of your life.”

“This is the only way that democracy and capitalism can be in alignment. The current online commerce models create a new kind of class division between full economic participants and partial economic participants. That means that there isn’t enough shared economic interest to support long-term democracy.

Any society that is composed of real biological people has to succeed at providing a balance to the frustrations of biological reality. There must be economic dignity, defined here as knowing you won’t fall off a cliff into abject poverty if you get sick, become a parent, or grow old.

If we demand that everyone turn into a freelancer, then we will all eventually pay an untenable price in heartbreak. Most people won’t be able to pull freelancing off through the contingencies of a lifetime. We need those levees, not because we’re lazy, but because we are real. When enough people lack economic dignity, there’s no way for the economy overall to function well. Even those who are reasonably successful on ”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *