BY Michael Sayeau in Opinion | 01 NOV 09
Featured in
Issue 127

The Net Effect

How free online media is affecting our offline expectations

BY Michael Sayeau in Opinion | 01 NOV 09

There is something to be said about the fact that one of the world’s busiest websites is also the one with the blandest design. Despite the occasional splash of holiday fun, Google’s homepage is designed with a functionalist austerity that is startling; a logo, a search box, and a smattering of search options in blue at the top of the page.

There are a few reasons why this is so. Minimal is hip and, despite the fact that Google has a market valuation of nearly $156 billion, it has stayed true to a canny unwillingness to bombard its users with profit-making clutter at the front end of their experience with the site. Streamlined design is also cheap. While bandwidth gets less expensive every day, if you’re moving a petabyte of data per hour, you think twice about adding pixels that aren’t strictly necessary.

But bandwidth and cool are not the end of the story. While we don’t usually think much about what we’re seeing when we look at the site, Google’s pages are premier examples of the visual culture that is a corollary of the ‘free culture’ that has come to define, for good or ill, vast sectors of our economies and our lives.
The editor of the US magazine Wired, Chris Anderson, recently published a zeitgeisty new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (2009), which argues for the viability or even economic necessity of the free email, music, video, news, maps and assorted other forms of entertainment and information that we have become accustomed to accessing with ease and at no price during the age of the Internet. Of course, this distribution model isn’t all that new – the history of free programming subsidized by advertising extends back through the rise of commercial television, to commercial radio before that, and then further back to the early modern emergence of the newspaper. Anderson traces this history and makes a persuasive case about the profitability of the model, arguing how loss-leaders often presage future gains as well as the many ways that fractions of pennies can add up to stacks of pounds. But he, and many other commentators, have missed some of the more radical ramifications of this increasingly dominant profit model.

In his 1935 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin discusses the ‘reception in a state of distraction’ that is characteristic of the ways that subjects experience modern, mass works of art such as architecture and film. It is an ambivalent development for Benjamin: one that at once permitted the rise of fascism and held the promise of new, habit-driven political orientations. While the terms and goals are somewhat different with the rise of ‘free’ and its effect on visual culture, there is a parallel ambiguity at work in the distraction that we all experience on a daily basis as we watch YouTube clips or read Google News.

What does it cost us to see our Gmail? If we don’t click through the tiny text advertisement that runs across the top of our inbox and make a purchase, does it have any cost at all? Anderson traces out one version of the answer to this question. Writing of the cost of viewing a Wikipedia page, he traces the network of micropayments from foundations and corporations that make the sight of each collaborative encyclopaedia entry possible. ‘At this point we’re talking about fractions of a cent that are like an atom in that penny. In other words, although you can probably argue that you are ultimately paying for that Wikipedia entry, it is only true in the sense that the flutter of a butterfly wing in China could determine your weather tomorrow.’ The price is, in other words, ‘too small to measure, so we don’t bother’.

In one sense, perhaps an overly literal one, Anderson is right – the price that we pay to view such a website is so insignificant as to border on incalculable. But there are other costs. As Malcolm Gladwell has it in his recent review of Free ... in The New Yorker: ‘“Information wants to be free,” Anderson tells us, “in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill.” But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in The Dallas [Morning News] paper to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?’

One doesn’t have to agree with the claims of the copyright-besotted media industry to worry about the net effect of self-interest posing as media Utopianism. Information workers – whether journalists, academics, artists or anything in between – have found and will continue to find the basic price of the services that they provide squeezed ever closer to zero. This is not simply because ‘information wants to be free’, but because some very large corporations with gigantic banks of processors and servers have decided to take a loss on the free provision of news, images, music and films. The flipside of the lack of advertising on YouTube is the lack of pay in the labourer’s pay cheque – a situation that will only get worse the more servers Google installs in its facilities around the world.

But there’s another part to this equation – more subtle than the first but potentially even more significant. That is, these free or almost-free services come to seem like a kind of human right, an automatic endowment that we receive simply for being alive in the world and with Internet access. We feel entitled to decent email access (once we’re on the web in the first place, of course), free chat, free books (albeit not in paper form). We assume the right to look at the photographs of friends and family or video feeds from near and far. Maps, likewise, guide us from place to place without apparent cost, and freely provided software (open source or not) gives us a sense that even our information work should be done at no cost to ourselves or anyone else.

Learning to get something for nothing (even if it’s not nothing, for now) is a mentality whose growth should render us as optimistic as it should frighten us. It’s not a long leap from free email to free and smoothly working public Wi-Fi. And from public Wi-Fi, it’s a longer leap, though not all that long, to health care and transport. A bit further yet to media, housing stock and all the rest. No one today would pay for an email account – but perhaps we are all learning, as we click, that there are things we do pay, and pay dearly, for that we needn’t, if things were organized more beneficently and efficiently. We are learning, in effect, that we all love to get something for nothing, even if we’re too busy clicking to take full notice.

Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in English at University College London, UK.