This July, check out Chris Anderson’s second book, Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price. I heard Anderson, of Wired magazine fame, speak at TiECon 2008 and was struck by his message: “$0.00 is the future of business.”

Anderson explained that the marginal costs of online storage, bandwidth, and processing power have fallen so close to zero that they might as well be free. That’s why Web companies (the successful ones, anyway) don’t charge users anything. How much do you pay for Wikipedia? Craigslist? YouTube? Zilch. Those of us who remember the turn of the century Napster lawsuit know that the enablers of file-sharing and “music piracy” were simply early adopters of an inevitable, unstoppable trend.

Call it the Google revolution; call it, as Anderson does, the dawn of “freeconomics.”

Call it irony. Today, as the DOW plummets and layoffs reach record highs, you and I actually spend our day consuming free products. That New York Timesarticle I read online, then post on Facebook, before Gmailing it to a friend, who links it on her blog … that article actually cost something to produce on the part of the Times editors, writers, and designers.

I read it, I enjoy it, and I pass it on—but I don’t pay a cent. Can this go on?

I realize that asking people to be concerned about low (nonexistent) prices might seem like a joke. Most of us have no qualms about free consumption because we’re familiar with the media model of the “three-way market”: A publisher creates a product that is given to the user for “free,” because costs have been subsidized by a third-party.

India Currents has always worked this way. Our readers get the magazine for free because the costs of production and distribution are covered by our advertisers. Like Google, we don’t sell products (magazines) to users (readers); we deliver users (readers) to advertisers.

On one level, the system makes sense. But having a subsidized experience also means having a contingent experience. I don’t pay—so someone else has to. What happens when that someone can no longer foot the bill?

That’s the practical question we have to ask in a precarious economy, but I’m also interested in the philosophical implications of free. How do we assign value to the stuff of our lives? Has widespread consumption of free products distorted our ability to discriminate worthy from worthless?

Call it irony. In a world in which life-saving medications are out of the price range of patients who need them, and people starve because they can’t afford to buy food that will eventually go to waste, millions of us take for granted that we can consume ideas, information, utilities, and services at zero cost.

Can this go on? The radical price may be just around the corner.

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.
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