Tuesday, December 8, 2009
"Free" is NOT The New Black
Everywhere you turn, should you turn to the media, you find people discussing the supposedly riveting concept of "free." Free is the new black. Info wants to be free. Blah blah blah. Much of this seems, as intelligent observers sometimes manage to concede, to be apologist rhetoric for mass theft of intellectual property. Sucking it to the record companies is a lot less abjectly immoral when the songs just wanted to jump into your ear. And I have to hand it to the previous kings of music distribution, the greeting card is possibly no less immoral a device for intellectual property (a song) than some super small time thieves' hard drive. Though, don't quote me on that. Theft is theft. Not greeting cards.
What's odd is how thoroughly very intelligent people seem to ignore the tempest in a teapot nature of this seemingly interesting subject. Terabytes of data are large amounts, yes. And much of this is more or less in the public domain (or available with a library card, or student ID) sure. And it is super interesting that such a service has become available due to the classic scalability of systems. Definitely! But axioms should not apply to service this phenomenon, that pretend to say something new. The water company provides water very cheaply, where I live, but it is hardly free. Merely consumed ubiquitously. Not free. And it don't want to be.
Same with other "utilities." A word that, unlike "free" deserves to grow in usage and relevance. The truth is that "free" as we experience it in the digital realm, is (as everyone knows) not free. It is paid for by elaborate structures that belie its seeming simplicity, in an aping of nature, not in release of her "surly" bonds. If anything, in greater service to them.
Aren't humans funny? Though many of us hurt when walking due to arthritis, it is rarely posited as a human dream to "simply be able to walk without pain." The old man I live with put this in an unintentionally hilarious way one night when, over dinner, he said in a slight mockery of grace, "God bless those who can swallow!" His point? Sometimes, swallowing can be a struggle. So enjoy it while you can.
And so it is with "free." We experience greater ease and access to something, and come to nearly supernatural conclusions (sometimes elaborating at 350 pages of nonsense, knowing people are gluttons for fantasy, despite the nose on their face.) Imagine if all the nonsense on the internet, including these fantastic denizens of the "ultimate sale" were somehow to provide their concepts for peer review. I wonder what sort of attitude the Second Law of thermodynamics would have toward the sudden appearance in human history of something for nothing? Oh yeah... there's something for nothing, just about everywhere you go in the world. And hiding behind the celebratory signage are the sobering facts that con-artists leave out. These claims are not sometimes a scam. The are not the new black. They are always a scam. Always a diversion. Always a shell game. Almost always cleverly just to the left or right of the MAIN THING (for example, your value system: put more bluntly, your rather fickle desire to "make a difference.") The examples litter history, and how often are they clothed in the finery of progressivism? Frequently. Ah, the good of the people rests on theft from the big shots. Somehow, as much as it would be nice if that were true, Beaver, I thought better of you.
Lastly there is the little matter of what causes "free" in the first place, which the so called intellectuals who traffic in this tawdry subject rarely seem to feel is interesting enough to look into. Occasionally some wag will hear that economics and fluid dynamics can be seen together, dining at a swank place endorsed by Science. Well... I should hope the two are comfortable in a math book together, but on a Friday night this would earn either little cache, don't you think.
"Free" is not possible due to some sweet little metaphor tidily escaping a genie bottle of compressed air, gas, heat, or other simplistic calculus, involving not much more than a numerator and denominator. Oh, sure, such entities would be necessary to describe "free", in the manner such a description is possible. And it is, in a sense, possible. "Free" is an emergent phenomenon having very little to due with social good. "Free" didn't care about your Grandma's water bill, just as it doesn't care about yours. "Free" comes about due to the manner in which systems of delivery of immutable pieces of information were built. Their architecture (servers, packet switching, and the software, mathematics and theory behind all of this) is complex, systemic, and yes... to use an overused word: chaotic. As such, phenomena, which have happily been surprising us, have been emerging for years. Like YouTube. Few could have guessed the appearance of, market for, eventual actual demand, and underlying capacity (throughput) possible, for the "service" known as YouTube. YouTube is commonly regarded as "free." In truth, of course, its value was readily settled upon by the parties that bought and sold it. And readily paid for (as some contentious observers worry about to this date) by Google. Shouldn't free stuff be free? Plenty of people who value YouTube would tell me I am missing the point. THEY don't pay, so it's free. And this too, their time and attention, and the value of both, seems to confuse the hell out of everyone in this discussion; just as it confuses the hell out of some of my friends who think their time is worth their self estimation (a very low value) and therefore never make any money, regardless of their skills, or opportunity.
To further elaborate, in a less popular vein, the Internet was designed to provide redundancies which, by design, have value, in the manner that a self repairing car would be incalculably more valuable than the sort we are cursed to drive. Many of the qualities of the web are powerfully valuable due to their novelty in nature, and especially as in deference to some of the systems that grew in the natural world: like the social and economic dynamics of locality.
This Internet "system", or web, was not created to deploy the qualities that we eventually most powerfully desired of it. It was never meant to provide, and never will provide, something for nothing. That it has powerfully deployed efficiencies of scale and information theory, changes little in the maintenance of power demanded to continue it's use and growth. All the while, it changes our lives, creating less predictable futures, and less relevant roles for our skill sets on the time frame of a human lifetime. Ask an economist next time you get a chance, "Which is it, that most pressures deflation over a time span of the last ten years: computers, or recession?"
Computers have yet to be blamed for recession, but one of the hallmarks of a recession, the loss in value of an economy's goods, over time, is deflation. And one of the greatest drivers of deflation is the most powerful tools being used across all industries to replace laborers, services, costly mistakes of inventory, and overall logistical choreography: Computers, of course. These savings for Paul, have meant a serious loss of revenue for the Peter's who previously provided costly services that computers have replaced. Hence intense downward pressure on the value of bookkeepers (Quickbooks, however, still cost's hundreds,) simplistic piece manufacture (laborers to robots,) "counters" and others who labor to "see it all" (spreadsheet and inventory management, as well as RFI tags, and other radio frequency devices that have taken the handlers out of much of the shipping and receiving industries.) And don't forget about the more or less novel expertise of logistics players, like UPS, who reorganize local systems like the mail system in the former Twin Towers, which was so slow that people used the US mail, rather than brave an "inter office" system which was built to fail.
So what's happened to those of you affected by all this progress? I guess you're free, eh?
You can't stop progress, but you sure as hell can call it something other than "free."
I bought a chopsaw the other day, that was worth nearly $200, for $20. The price of such tools has dropped over fifty percent retail, and possibly more wholesale. There is currently a consolidation amongst the largest players in the power tool world: significantly Stanley Tools, and Black and Decker (maker of Dewalt) wish to merge their famous yellow badges. Gonna hafta settle on a slightly different yellow tonality, methinks. But in any case, the change in cost, across our economy, depending on the sector can be astonishing. For some things: like copiers: the makers of the device recoup the cost in servicing the machine for its life. Automobiles have more or less worked this way before. Less and less to be sure, but still a significant portion of the value of a car company comes from the dealers privilege to raise the "flag" and do business in concert with the reputation of the cars badge. Any fool knows that service at the dealer is supposed to be a premium. And costs reflect this for the customer. And "value" of companies sure as hell reflect it as well.
Hulu (the web video service) is from nowhere. Yet it is a rich, reasonably ubiquitous source of experiences and brands known the world over, and seamlessly entered into the expectations of the new user who types in Hulu's URL. Due to the fact that Hulu is supported (and they do not pay its bills in full, as of yet) by ads, many people perceive their experience watching Hulu as free. And yet Hulu is considering charging a small fee in the future to supplement it's ad structure. This perfectly demonstrates the perception of free, vs. it's deployment. Somehow, free gets paid for. By the rich, or by the relatively poorer. "Free" is an emergent phenomenon of complex systems we just love to fall into. Our pleasure, so rare amongst these well worn brands, is easily mistaken for "free and easy." But hasn't that been the case since the first shill ever sold an otherwise worthless rock as an arrowhead? Your sensations of novel pleasure are "emotionally valuable" and there fore, in a sense, value added. What was once a  Rock, is now a sexy projectile. Both of them are not free.