Robert Greene understands. His fortieth law of power is “Despise the Free Lunch”:
“What is offered for free is dangerous—it usually involves either a trick or a hidden obligation. What has worth is worth paying for. By paying your own way you stay clear of gratitude, guilt, and deceit. It is also often wise to pay the full price—there is no cutting corners with excellence. Be lavish with your money and keep it circulating, for generosity is a sign and a magnet for power.”
Take Google. It’s an incredible tool that allows us to rapidly grok new ideas, topics, concepts and people. And it’s free! FREE. At least, it doesn’t cost us any money. But how can Google provide such a phenomenal tool at zero monetary cost to its users? Answer: because its users aren’t its users; the people who use Google are the product. What we look at is tracked and sold as information which allows marketeers and advertisers to target us more effectively.
Another example. The basic (free) versions of Gmail and Google Drive have high storage limits that the average user is never likely to surpass. Whereas the storage Apple allows its average user is comparatively low. You have to pay for more once a low threshold is reached. How ludicrous! Storage is cheap, right? Wrong. The only reason Google can offer tonnes of storage for nothing is that Google generates revenue by monitoring our usage patterns and profiles. Apple doesn’t, so they make up the cost of providing storage by actually charging for it.
There’s no free lunch in apps either. Yes, you can get a lot of them for nothing. But to get an app for nothing you have to be at peace with one (or both) of the following conditions: 1) you will be advertised to, often aggressively, and 2) any information you submit could potentially be accessed by third parties—that includes not just how you use the app itself, but also unrelated information like location and network connections.
You can’t extract value from something without that something exacting a cost upon you. When consuming legacy media, like Forbes and the New York Times, you have a choice. Either pay a subscription or one-off fee and access ad-free content, or pay nothing and be bothered by kinda-targeted advertising.
Have you heard of the 99-1 Rule? It’s a methodology put into practice by people like Tim Ferriss, Ramit Sethi and Seth Godin. The essence is this: give 99% of your work away for free, and for the remaining 1% charge an ultra-premium amount. The idea is that the work you give away for next-to-nothing builds an audience or customer base that includes people who will be willing to pay for the ultra-premium parts of your portfolio. The 99% sells the 1%; the 1% covers the cost of producing the 99%.
There are exceptions to the no-free-lunch rule. Sticking with the theme of single player producers, we can consider a blog like Slate Star Codex. Its proprietor, Scott Alexander, has hinted before at his lack of interest in monetising the blog. He has a day job and finds enough intrinsic value in producing Slate Star Codex to continue doing so without external compensation.
It’s the same with other people who create stuff—writing, videos, art, photography etc.—and put it online with no expectation of recompense. They are living via the words of Alan Watt, who at the beginning of Still the Mind, says:
“When a mountain stream flows out of a spring beside the road, and a thirsty traveller comes along and drinks deeply, the traveller is welcome. But the mountain stream is not waiting with the intention of refreshing thirsty travellers; it is just bubbling forth, and the travellers are always welcome to help themselves. So in exactly that sense I offer these ideas, and you are all welcome to help yourselves."
When I was younger, my uncle showed me that things like antivirus, malwate and firewall software can be had for nothing. There were a ton of freeware options which were usually better than paid alternatives. He also put me on to this little thing called “open source”—you may have heard of it—and showed me how to donate to the companies and projects who make things just because they think what they’re making should exist. For a long time I thought to myself, “Why would I donate? I’m getting what I want and it’s costing me nothing.”
But now I get it. As an independent creator, I know how much goes into making something, and I recognise that if I extract value it’s not unreasonable for me to give something back
The explicit formulation of this understanding has come at a funny time. See, recently, I’ve obliterated nearly all push notifications and subscriptions, and stopped giving so much of my attention to curators of content. I don’t save articles to read later. I’m not signed up to many newsletters—less than five actually. And I’m not particularly active on social media. That’s because, over the last few months, my curiosity and drive to explore has been battered and suppressed by demands made upon my attention. “Watch this.” “Read this.” “Have you read this book? Its amazing! You should check it out. Its a must-read.”
My response to this feeling was to remove, to an extreme extent, pushes on my attention. Now, nothing and no one is telling me what to watch/read/listen to/learn about/enjoy/consume. This means that rather than being a fat king, sitting on my throne, having servants feed me grapes, I have to get off my ass and go out into the world. I have to search for my own nourishment in the wilderness of the networked world.
But as I described above, when it comes to anything in life—especially media and content—there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So I began to wonder. What if I altered my consumption pattern? Leaving aside serendipitous periods of discovery and wandering, what if I consumed only that which I paid for? How would that affect my relationship with the information I receive? Would I begin to treat it more like signal, like something I slow down to savour and digest, rather than a noisy obligation to get out of the way.
For example, if I paid for membership to Tiago Forte’s Praxis, contributed to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings and took out a subscription for Ben Thompson’s Stratchery, would I spend more time absorbing what these people are saying and thinking? Would how I use Wikipedia change if I donated monthly to its upkeep and continuation? In an alternate world, if I could pay a monthly fee for Twitter, would I place more value upon the conversations and the sources I discover there?
I think so. See, the more something costs us, the more likely we are to treat it as signal. In a way, that’s why we love our children so much; because we’ve put an incredible amount of time, money, energy and attention into raising, protecting and teaching them.
Aside from alterations in how you perceive and allocate value to that which you consume, there’s another consequence to all this. It’s easiest to illustrate using the image of a spring. Whenever someone or something tells you to listen/watch/read X, imagine the spring being compressed, squashed down. What happens to a spring when it is constantly compressed? It loses its bounce. That’s what happens to our mind when we consume high amounts of free information from sources we haven’t paid for. We lose our spring.
I realised this when I made the switch to less pushes on my attention and thought. Rather than paying attention to A because Z told me too, I now pay attention simply because I want to. Because it seems interesting.
The implications of this is that I’m less lazy. I’m beginning to remember what it feels like to discern and decide. It’s like the reawakening of a long-dormant instinct, or using a compass and tracks to navigate, as opposed to a GPS system. I have to pay attention to my environment because anything within it could contain clues as to my next step or the next danger on the journey ahead.