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 [30] Rock, is now a sexy projectile.  Both of them are not free.


Jukka said...

Yep, there is no such thing as free, methinks. Interesting thoughts. Information is a very powerful thing, and sure the novelty of internet made bubbles. It must burst in the end, like everything else. In the end (when these bubbles burst) we will probably have a world which values core values; the ability to move without pain, nature resources, the love of other people. I think its just as good to invest in these things at once. The ability to differ between superficial value (which will disappear) and core values (things dependant on life and death, love and food) is important for any broker looking for a good deal. You put the finger on it. Intelligent post. Perhaps I'm rambling, but I think that the ability to move within the animalistic spheres of life (one's which life depends on) is the way forward in the soon to be future. People (myself included) are used to illusion. The stage, I think is set for realities.

Andy Coffey said...

Thanks for reading Jukka

Thanks are going to break in the broken world, otherwise it would heal, and ambition would melt away. As it stands we wish for rupture and failure in the world to order our prejudices, and entertain our days. What is peace but a suffocation of Glory?

Nice to hear from you as always.

Jon said...

this is, to me, a good post-structural analysis... "free" is a good example of strong emergence...

but i would have to question some of the rational for choosing this word to frame this argument and ask what effects this might have... and also what premises you are working with that may be open to strong emergence themselves

for example, you seem to have a shot at capitalist systems in some of your writing, yet you speak of economic systems and boom and bust cycles as though this is a natural phenomenon... whereas I would say that this is a cultural construction

it seems to me that in a world where even the genetic code of humans is owned, where most every inch on the planet is regulated, where even water is a commodity (and no longer part of Maslow's bottom three) then there will surely be a reaction to this...

i don't think that water should be free, or the genetic code, or the earth should be free... i think that these things are not available for ownership

thanks for this post... quite thought provoking

Ande said...

Andy. I came to think of aging when reading your post. Maybe a bad parallel. Society feels like that sometimes. As long as the body maintains young with perfect cellular path ways (abundance of recourses, and easy maintained organs) its ok to not be prudent about recourses. And when cells has to fight for every bit of nourishment it becomes costly. So we need a tight system of checks and balances to regulate upkeep of the whole body. I know, its a bad parallel but today's society feels like someone middle aged, regulating recourses because our "cellular path ways" has to work double time to compensate for the general decay all aging systems inherit. We need to rejuvenate, I think, or continue this boring process of control to some end.

Andy Coffey said...


While I have no idea what you said there, welcome. I'm afraid, like most people from Indiana, I have very little clue how to read anything but English. It is an aspect of my nature, however, to regard any sentiment sent in my direction (even in anger) as a blessing---- so thanks.

Andy Coffey said...


I am rather poorly educated in many of the themes you were kind enough to comment on. I'm not certain how you found my discussion, but am quite glad you did. It is a kindness to communicate, regardless of argument.

I am glad you agree that free is emergent, as opposed to some grand marketing thing. To jump the gun on my own comment here, I think this explains a bit why I seem not terribly critical of Capitalist themes, in this particular entry. It's also worth noting that my main issue with political, financial, and economic systems is from the perspective of my spiritual life. I am hardly a policy wonk, a philosopher, or an economist. All three of those subjects can rationalize circles around my pathetic desire to love people. In that sense they are right. And I think, this somewhat ironic fact might be perceived by some as me kowtowing to the system. Perhaps I am... I can't really say. Limited, as I am by my capacity to reflect thoughts into words.

Most of the premises I work with that are open to strong emergence have to do with biology, science in general, and dabbles of cognitive science that some friends attempt to insert into my head. Lately I have been swimming in a swirling realm of mixtures of these systems problems (as gleaned by me through lectures watched on the web, as well as books in the popular and academic press) and the strange developments of science, such as the creation of biopathways to allow some degree of the age old alchemy questions: something for nothing. It's amusing, always, to read about breakthroughs which amount to the same old hope for Midas touch, given the historical constraints on the great Midas finger. Only in fiction, so far, may dross become his gold.

So it has been through that perspective that I began to groan audibly about the Andersons of the world. It's not that I don't admire curiosity, in the face of cynicism. Well... at least I like it more. Maybe admire is too strong a word.

It's more that I regard thinly disguised fantasy, outside the realm of careful questions of scale, thermodynamic "law" and other incredibly useful paradigms to be somewhat offensive. Sort of a personal thing. But also, as I mentioned, an uneducated "spiritual" thing. Not strongly rooted in deep scholarship. Not potently defended. Not particularly angry (since the spiritual so frequently is attended by the redemptive: how often do I tell myself when I tear someone down in my mind, "You don't mean that, Andy..." often. It's what they call a beginning. Same goes for others, after I've worked on myself. I know... I know... very unsatisfying to the professionals of the world, but they should avoid me.)

I do not think economic systems are natural. I was reading critics of our resurgent economy, and agreeing with them, and feeling a little crazy around many of the wealthy people I know, prior to the so called crash. It is already the case, well established, that the market will continue to crash.

The good news is that the economy simply has shrunk, so the damage to bystanders, is more limited that it used to be, from the standpoint of prognostication. That said, I live in a poor area, more or less, of Southern Indiana. I am surrounded by marginal, uneducated people, who I prefer to the alternative, day in day out. They have nowhere to turn. I do not live in Sweden. I know lots of kids for whom I can predict a shortened lifespan due to their parents capacity to provide them with knowledge and proper diet. Yeah, it's cultural. But it's also a function of the bad news of the economy. Many mothers give their children what they won't give themselves. Needless to say, that ain't free.

More in a second....

Andy Coffey said...

Continuing for Jon...

So we agree. The systems are cultural (and cynical, and frankly, like gambling, intentionally dumb.)

I could not have stated better my values, and fears than the last two to three paragraphs of your comments. Our needs must at the very least be available, for the world to be considered under the terms of justice. Tyranny is too often considered a poltergeist that haunts only the lawless world. To me, tyranny also inhabits the hearts and minds of people who live in an unsafe world, where a mistake can lead a person to a hopeless cycle of the total loss of dignity. Not a day goes by when I don't look into the eyes of a man who will never be loved again (due to deformity, or profound social illness) and let them see and hear the alternative. That is my privilege. But, I can't help but think it is also a sign of the subtle trade of our system, in America. We've marginalized the tyranny of the individual, through the rule of law, but magnified it by creating a system where only the rich can move freely, with agency, and dignity.

Of course, you and I, and most everyone knows: they aren't terribly dignified in any case.

I am flattered at your nuanced erudition. Clearly, you have stayed your hand, in some of these matters, so as to better ask my opinion. Feel free in the future to knock me around a bit. And thank you, Jon.

Andy Coffey said...


It is true that aging is not exactly where I was coming from, and yet, the same sort of arguments apply (something, for nothing. Value of a happy life, with no balancing "yang." Perhaps even death, being an emergent quality of life. Can you imagine most peoples reaction to such a claim? Well, if you spend much time around the dying, you'll hear a different attitude. So many ways death is healthy.)

Yes, your comments about recourses, and prudence where abundance occurs or does not occur, is interesting. When I learned more deeply of entropy, I could not help but look at people throughout their lives within the framework of thermodynamics. Life seemed to be all about a sort of Robin Hood stealing from entropy at every opportunity. Perhaps that is just a tiny bit of the pleasure that I take in the switch of a youngish woman's hips. Stolen abundance... offered? Visually, of course!

Oh, Ande, the aging of our infrastructure is a white hot issue in the most important research in civil engineering. The problem is more or less how you stated it: it isn't the raw size of the infrastructure that does the main work of producing flow and throughput. That aspect of the system has efficiencies that only increase regardless of rescaling. It is the "checks and balances" you mention, that crowd with intense complexity (like the proteins that crowd the heart of a chloroplast: a cube of simplicity, crowded by an enabling complexity.) What will stop us every time is this enabling complexity that makes "solution" finally work.

History serves rich examples of other complex social systems which seemed to have no answer: and then, there was an answer.

We shall see. And thanks for your comments, Ande.

Jon said...

First, thanks for your response and your candor. You express yourself so well here. I appreciate that you took the time. And what you said about communication as a kindness... yes... that's what I think as well. It's the only way forward, and to express and share ideas is my favorite thing about blogging.

I had thought when I read your post that we were on the same page all along. I am, however, fairly picky about words (and I think that you are too), so I felt that you wouldn't mind a bit of sparring.

I think that you are too quick to devalue your own experience and spirituality as being less than scholarly. I would be pleased if more academics were as eloquent and open to discussion as you are, and I applaud your eagerness to engage others. Myself, I am not from a ritzy family, and I've done every kind of work you can name. My working and traveling has brought me the good fortune to know people of all walks of life, and I have tried to reserve any kinds of judgments. For a long time I was damn poor, but I saw this as a blessing, and I've tried to carry this forward into other aspects of my life.

In recent years, I have found my way into work in the universities, and have done lots of study and reading and writing... only to find that there's not really any answers lurking out there... only more questions, and more finely tuned questions. Thus the reason that I think a degree of spirituality and respect for mystery is a very healthy thing.

One question that I have started to ask whenever I think about these big ideas (anything to do with society, culture, politics, etc.) is, in the service of what are these ideas deployed? And what is this meant to cover over?

But then this becomes a slippery slope. It's quite difficult for me to LIVE in the world if I let relativism rule my thinking. It seems that the old paradigm was about absolutes, either/or choices... either the world is this way, or the world is that way. Then there's the newer paradigm (some would call it postmodern) that says, no... it's not either/or. It is more correct to say that things are both/and. The world is both this way and the world is that way. That's where I think that lots of writers and thinkers are now. What this does is it deconstructs absolute ideas like governance, freedom, liberty, love, and so on.

But then I ask the question, what am I to do in a world where there is no love? What of a world where there is no freedom, and no real stability?

Well, what some are saying most recently (and this is a bit obscure) is that it's either/or and both/and.

Now that's a mind-bender, eh? What this seems to me to be saying is that sometimes there needs to be either/or kinds of things. Like either I help the lady next door, or I don't. And sometimes there needs to be both/and kinds of things. Like spirituality is both necessary and irrational. And sometimes these ways of thinking and deciding need to be together.

Sorry that this is kind of rambling. I have trouble expressing this as succinctly as I would like. If you're interested in the thinkers who've developed this, check out Deleuze and Guattarri's book, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia
It's available on google books.

Thanks again for the conversation. Nice to make your acquaintance.

Andy Coffey said...


Your words remain a gift to me, and I look forward when I have time later today or tomorrow to expanding on your comments. Obviously we have respect between us, and that is always wonderful.

Quickly, the either/or; both/and dichotomies are wonderful to me in many ways. When disciplining myself, both/and seems to work, where acceptance of others should be mandated. And when trying to make the proper decision, where old wisdom has handed down what might be called historo/ statistical models: either/ or is very helpful. Given some folks can hardly make a decision at all, I find a great deal of grace in the slipperiness between these two. I need not even mention the spiritual traditions that don't necessarily concern themselves with these dichotomies. I too find a desire to apply wisdom to real life, and too much abstraction and removal of myself from attachment only heats up my search and journey for meaning: it sure doesn't bring me peace. So there is a paradox there.

I look forward to investigating your comments further, and reading some of the blogs you have listed on your profile. Life may no always be good, but friendship is wicked nice in its illusions.

Wine and Words said...

Ain't nothin' free but death and salvation. To all else there is cost. We just choose to ignor it.

Andy Coffey said...

Thanks for stopping by, Wine and Words. Your winking humor and it's attending intelligence on display.... as usual. Thanks.

Jukka said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harlequin said...

I enjoyed your post, Andy, and also the comments and further exchanges it generated. Such elaborations are evidence that what was written and then further discussed was thoughtful indeed....
I agree that one has to find her way through the dichotomies, paradoxes,deceits and necessary alliances.... I also mourn what seems to me to be the loss of accountability...no matter how bad something is, it is possible for some to avoid the consequences of their actions....
not sure I will be finding a way to work that one out...

Andy Coffey said...


You are always so kind. I will leave more commentary just as soon as I have time. Kinda crazy day.

Thanks so much.

Ande said...

Hi again, Andy

I'm sorry to shell you with comments. However, I came to think about some things you've been discussing in earlier posts, as well as your notion of "the aging of infrastructure", when an associate yesterday showed me a novel theory of aging - ("aging as a consequence of misrepair").
According to this, aging of the body is the essentially same thing as the aging of our infrastructure, which is driven by the second law of thermodynamics;

"We propose that aging is a result of accumulation of Misrepair of tissue."


"The concept of tissue-Misrepair
couples aging and development, which obey a similar mechanism: tissue-(re)construction. Therefore
this theory unifies the multi-factors in aging mechanism. Actually, any kind of structured body with maintenance function, e.g. a city, a road, or a building, has also the aging problems"


"Our interpretation is consistent with the physical view of aging. In terms of the Second Law of
Thermodynamics, cyclic processes of metabolism increase the entropy in a living system. Entropy
actually characterizes the degree of disorganization. Living beings continuously need to release
entropy to protect them from running into thermodynamic equilibrium (death) . However the entropy increases unavoidably due to the un-removable Misrepair."

Nature Precedings :

I love this thought; that we humans are essentially similar to cities or any complex system. It shows the underlying harmony of nature perhaps.
Hmm, a blackbird looks at me from outside when I'm typing this. Probably hungry.