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On Ed Snowden, Facebook and the Cost of ‘Free’

This article was originally posted on Tonguesten by Lemez Jonathan on Jun 27, 2013

Just been at a fascinating event in #Cybersalon event in Clerkenwell on the topic of Mobile Culture: Then And Now. Artist Christian Nold, filmmaker Pete Gomes and lecturer Sophia Drakopoulou talked about the use of mobile technology in political protest and the emergence of major trends in mobile culture – citizen journalism, user-generated content and geo-mapping – in their own work. Check out some links here and here. Right at the end, an interesting discussion sprang up about whether everyday tools like Skype and Facebook were free, and if not, what the hidden costs were.

Today, the fearless Cybrsalon founders Eva Pascoe, Niki Gomez and Sophia are off to the Houses of Parliament to heckle William Hague on whether, in the light of Edward Snowden’s stunning revelations about internet providers’ secret agreements with government agencies to share data, the security services should have the right to trawl our private data trail for their own ends. Naturally, everyone in the room was disgusted by the news that no, our cloud-based emails, documents and status updates are not private, and that, yes, government agencies have the legal right to log and analyse our online lives at will.

That companies like Google and Facebook can use our data for whatever purposes they choose should not come a shock. The quid pro quo is clear, even without reading the terms and conditions: giving over ownership of our data is the price we pay for the ‘free’ services we so love to use. Far from being disgusted at the revelations, we should have known this all along. Are we really so naive to think that multi-billion pound corporations would give us expensive tools for free, and not ask for anything in return? Are we confusing their hip marketing slogans with some kind of altruistic purpose that goes against their very core?

Or are we so in love with ‘free’, that it makes us ignore the most basic question of all – “why?”

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely has written extensively about the cost of ‘free’. In his research, Ariely’s key conclusion is that “free” is not a price – it’s a positive emotional glow. Overwhelmingly in studies, subjects are witnessed thinking about a ‘zero price’ as something akin to magic,  to the extent that it obscures even basic judgements about what is being consumed. Free is, literally, a no-brainer. One experiment asks subjects to choose between two chocolates: a delicious truffle that costs 61 cents, and a cheap, unappetising one that costs one cent. Overwhelmingly, the truffle wins out. But reduce both prices by just one cent, and the result is reversed: the subjects mostly scoffed free chocolates they didn’t enjoy. In another experiment, two friends go to a restaurant and order the same thing on two separate occasions, both times splitting the bill equally. A second time they do the same thing, but the first time one friend pays (and his friend gets a free meal), and the next time the friend pays, returning the favour. Which group of friends do you think felt they paid less overall, and enjoyed the two meals more?

A similar point was made about the environment forty years previously by EF Schumacher in his 1973 gem of a book, “Small Is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered”. Within beautiful writing that invokes Buddhist thought alongside Keynes,  Schumacher despairs that the balance sheets of big oil companies feature only the immediate costs of drilling, staffing and maintaining rigs, *but treat the oil itself as if it were free*. Oil, he notes, is a finite resource. And it is found in many unstable countries. In other words, if we think it’s free now, the true cost will come back to haunt us later – an idea now at the heart of modern environmentalism.

We may hold on to the nostalgic idea of the web as an informal network for sharing information – a direct descendant of tape-culture or samizdat – but the truth is that our interactions on it and with it have long since been determined by the interests of big industry, of which government is the biggest of all. So the exposure of the PRISM scandal is undoubtedly positive, in that it finally brings to the forefront a jarring contradiction that has been under the surface for too long: *there’s a reason why it’s free.*  And if this post makes even one person less reach out their hand for the Evening Standard on the tube tonight, I’ll consider it a job well done.

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