The Future’s Free-for all of us Now

Sharing is the key moral concept of our business-friendly, post-socialist world bringing instant global access at zero cost

An unseasonably fine late autumn afternoon in Brighton. I’m waiting in a beachside café for my daughter, who graduated a few months ago and now wants to discuss what one might actually do with an English degree. We are going out for lunch, but I have arrived from London early and have half an hour to kill.

To pass the time, I play with my new iPhone. I notice there is wireless internet here, right by the sea. Brighton is quite the technology hub these days. I remember that geeks call it Silicon Beach. Hence the WiFi by the waves.

Spooling idly through the (mostly free) software applications (apps) on my phone, I open one that accesses webcam streams from around the world, and am soon watching live, colour video of people going to work in New York, where it’s breakfast time, and strolling on the beach in Mumbai, where it’s early evening.

 Illustration by Miles Cole

Pointless — and not a little voyeuristic — as this in some ways trivial example of what a combination of computing, the internet and radio telephony can now achieve is, you can’t sniff at the technology which makes it possible — and not on some military specification piece of gadgetry, but a pocket device available on any high street. This gimmick alone exceeds anything that science fiction predicted for the 21st century. 

But there is a further factor arguably even more significant than the wow-wee technology. It’s that I am able to enjoy the novelty of all this not only free of charge, but without anyone overtly — or even covertly — selling or publicising anything. It’s just an entertaining celebration by technology enthusiasts of what’s possible in the hyper-connected, hyper-interactive new world — old-style Tomorrow’s World stuff on a grand, global scale. 

Is it really free? Yes, for all practical purposes. Beyond the fraction of a fraction of a penny for the electricity to power the myriad technologies that make it possible, my beach-surfing exercise costs nothing beyond what I pay anyway for my phone service. The WiFi on Brighton beach is free. Using the distant webcams is free. I don’t know or care much who’s paying for any of what’s happening, or why, other than it’s not me. 

My daughter arrives. We select a restaurant on Qype, a (free) food lovers’ website. We are guided there by the (free) GPS and (free) Google mapping on my phone. When we sit down at our table, we both check our (free) email. We don’t need to catch up much on news because we know much of what the other has been doing thanks to our (free) Facebook and Twitter streams. 

Ellie tells me that close to finals she found it particularly useful to download from iTunes (free) online lectures from experts in her subject from other universities, from Oxford and Cambridge to Harvard and Princeton. She also tells me about a new band she loves and suggests I listen to their music on the (free) legal music website Spotify. I leave for London after checking the train times from Brighton on another (free) app that relays the departures schedule live from every station on the rail network. We agree we will have a (free) Skype video chat at the weekend. 

Walking to the station, I dictate some emails to a (free) app called Dragon Dictation, which takes my words, transcribes them on a computer sited in Boston, Mass, and, a few seconds later, delivers them faultlessly typed and ready to send from my phone. On the train, I also dictate and post a (free) Qype review of the restaurant at which we ate. 

Now while consuming all these free services is what might modishly be called “a no-brainer”, writing a restaurant review for no money should be counterintuitive, at least to me, a professional writer who has no income stream other than getting paid for my views and expressing them. But we appreciated Qype’s recommendation, loved the restaurant, and I was more than happy to contribute comments to the site — to the Qype “community” if you must — for no payment. It’s not even a matter of showing off your critical skill, gastronomic knowledge or whatever — the reviews on Qype are anonymous. The driver is pretty well entirely altruistic. It’s a sharing thing. 

And, inspired by the example of the internet, with its much-discussed “economics of free”, but extending into the non-digital world too, the idea of sharing in all its guises has never been more popular. The new sharing is, one hastens to add, in no more than the remotest sense socialistic in motivation. There is not even the faintest whiff of stale Marxist cant about it. It is more like the kind of sharing your nanny would have encouraged — sharing because it’s sensible, efficient and character-building. 

The new sharers, both those who provide free services and consume them, seem to me to be overwhelmingly Thatcher-generation free-marketeers, opportunists and either would-be or active entrepreneurs. From my experience, I don’t think any of them would find a commune or a kibbutz appealing. The new sharing is business-friendly. It just sees sharing as a sensible, efficient way to live which by way of clever background manipulation (I am thinking here of the way free-to-user Google manages to make a fortune on the quiet), can also provide a healthy living to a lot of people. 

The new sharing is at root an internet phenomenon. Online, we share infrastructure in free-to-user “Cloud computing” applications from webmail to Google Documents to YouTube, Flickr (free photography sharing) and Evoca (free audio online recording and sharing) and business utilities like Salesforce.com, Netsuite, Baidu and Alibaba. We share intellectual property through sites such as Wikipedia, through the free university lectures my daughter used and via organisations such as Creative Commons that enable people to share and build on the intellectual work of others, while still respecting copyright. And we share personal information on social networking sites, to the point where the electronic “global village” envisioned by Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s has actually come about, albeit via the internet, which had still to be invented when McLuhan was writing. 

The social networking global village is as vibrant and humming with shared gossip as any real rural village in antiquity. Every morning, on my laptop, I hear on Facebook news, jokes and gossip being shared by a diverse group of people around the world, some of whom I have known for 50 years, others for a few days. I genuinely feel as if I’m in a real continuing, gossipy discourse with real friends.

Facebook-ing and Twitter-ing may have an image for some of being a still transient fad, vapid, even, but I suspect that the likes of Dr Johnson, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and even Karl Marx would have been avid Tweeters. We already know from within Twitter’s first year that when major events occur, such as the 2009 repression in Iran, Tweeted gossip becomes far from idle: “Tyranny’s new nightmare: Twitter” ran a Los Angeles Times headline during that unrest. 

The same will doubtless happen again and again elsewhere. In China, where Facebook and Twitter are banned, young people have built their own imitation, Kaixin, which they use for gossip and trivia — but also to swap anti-regime stories of official corruption, government malfeasance and anything else of which the official media might fight shy. 

Raw and National Enquirer-ish as some of its rumours seem, Kaixin seems unstoppable as a forum for China’s young intelligentsia to foster a mild sense of rebellion and discontent. And no user pays a penny for it. 

Offline, a widespread sharing, voluntary ethic is also becoming manifest, and while this may be coincidental, the idea that it is happening in the slipstream of the cultural change wrought by the internet is compelling, since sharing — be it infrastructure, intellectual property, personal information or almost anything — hasn’t exactly had the best of images since Messrs Lenin, Stalin and Mao opened for business. 

It isn’t just that the old sharing had a goody-goody feel that started when you were forced to share sweets and toys. The command, share-or-go-without economies of Eastern Europe and elsewhere were a prime case of what was equated once by Kenneth Baker to “stroking the cat’s fur the wrong way”. Given the chance, people in those states rejected the uniformity and squalor of enforced sharing and gleefully adopted capitalism, individualism and private property. The remaining significant communist country, China, has nominally retained its branding, but entirely shed the enforced sharing ethic, and become the most vigorous and successful of market economies. In the West, such patchy attempts at promoting a more shared way of thinking as workers’ co-operatives have all but died out. Even the tradition for idealistic Western students of spending time living the communal life on a kibbutz has faded to insignificance, along with the kibbutzim themselves.

Yet despite the tainted name that sharing has garnered over the past 90 or so years, the new internet culture has overflowed into the physical world and spawned a range of sharing-based entities, some based online, some on mobile phone services, but others wholly physical and outside the technology sector. It’s as if getting so much free on the web and sharing the detail of their lives on social networking sites has hardwired into a generation the idea — the assumption, indeed — that as much as possible should be free-to-user, pooled communally, yet never sullied by even a hint of socialist ethic. There’s no business class on the internet, no private version of Google, this post-socialist, post-capitalist generation appears to feel, so why shouldn’t a measure, at least, of old-fashioned, nanny-ish, healthy public-spiritedness, egalitarianism and altruism be given its head in “real” as well as virtual life? 

So while previously the only tradition of sharing at a municipal level was the public library and the (occasionally) free city art gallery, now nobody even stops to think how remarkable it is that, for example, the US military’s GPS system is available free-to-user to everyone in the world, even America’s enemies. No one in Japan thinks it remarkable that novels, manga comic strips and even made-for-mobile TV soaps are distributed free or near-free to consumers’ handsets. 

An increasing number of cities, meanwhile, have burgeoning car and cycle sharing schemes, some successful, others that have a habit of being sabotaged by non-communally-minded people who steal the bikes. Free charging posts for electric vehicles are springing up. Local councils around the world are busy creating congestion-charging schemes and painting bus, taxi, pool car and cycle lanes to ensure that streets are shared equitably between people of different types and incomes. Some cities — the central business district of Perth in Australia is one — have adopted free public transport. 

Worldwide, businesses such as shops, restaurants, bars and clubs that can’t afford city rents are taking a route which the hippies would have approved of when sharing was last around, in the 1960s. Entrepreneurs brought up in the internet era have invented pop-ups: businesses which legally squat for a limited period in prestigious but unoccupied premises, thus effectively sharing both real estate and the opportunity to create a viable brand for minimum investment. 

The pop-up — even the name is a web borrowing — has turned being unable to afford to lease property long-term into an opportunity to create a chic factor. The fashion brand Comme des Garçons began the trend in 2004 with an outbreak of “guerrilla stores”. Now pop-ups of all sorts abound — restaurants, shops, galleries and more — all physical places, but with the temporary, non-physical feel of a website. 

Then there’s the widespread movement to reduce the footprint of our possessions, to rent and share more of what we need and thereby, symbolically at least, to live more ethically. The Freecycle network operates in many countries to offer free goods of all sorts online to anyone prepared to pick up the stuff. A swathe of websites such as Zilock.com, which originated in France when the founder wanted to use a drill and realised that buying one for a few minutes’ use was absurd, now offer peer-to-peer renting of tools along with such items as cameras, child car seats and camping equipment. And, of course, there are eBay, Craigslist and the multiplicity of websites which encourage us to sell unwanted items. Even this vast boom in second-hand can be seen as part of a mass movement towards a more sharing, but never remotely socialist, ethic.

It’s as if we’re all at the dawn of a realisation, inspired by the fact that all of us, from peasant to billionaire, use the same Google, that it’s neither necessary nor right for everyone to own one of everything. 

An internet-born philosophy currently all the rage in California encourages a simpler, pared-down lifestyle by helping people to reduce their possessions to 100 things — and, naturally, to share their list of 100 things with the world via the internet. The challenge was devised by David Bruno, a computer executive who framed it as a response to consumerism and the recession, along with his unease about the unwanted junk filling his home. Bruno, who is described on the web as an “anti-consumerist entrepreneur”, began owning some 400 personal “things” and is now down below 100, although “furniture”, “books” and “underwear” all count in his philosophy as one possession each. 

This new all-purpose sharing world heralded and largely powered by the internet is a happy coincidence of a number of cultural, economic, technological and other trends. Its ethical underpinnings undoubtedly lie in the internet’s own history, emerging as it did from academia and government rather than commerce. From its beginnings in the early 1970s in the university research community, the internet promoted a tradition of open publication on ideas, data, results, comments — and jokes. Robert E. Kahn, one of the fathers of the internet, specifically proposed that there should be no global control of the network at the operations level.

But since then, and with the worldwide web having become the hub of much of the world’s business of all kinds, plenty of that original collaborative ethic has stuck — principally in the form of the “economics of free” or “freeconomics”. This is the new business paradigm whereby, if your business is supplying not shoes or bricks or carrots, but anything that consists essentially of digits — whether that be music, research, film, news or any part of the incalculably vast knowledge economy — you have no choice but to start supplying all or part of it free-to-user. 

The economics of free has overturned traditional notions of copyright. In music, for instance, an increasing number of performers no longer regard their recordings as a viable asset to protect and sell. For one thing, it’s practically impossible any longer to prevent it from being duplicated a million times and shared illegally. The new sharing culture has ensured that companies like the Swedish Pirate Bay, while its founders may have been found guilty and sentenced to jail time for breaking copyright law, is widely regarded as being morally on the side of the angels. What some would call theft has become cool. Sweden is also host to the near-notorious Wiki-leaks website, which supplies (free) secrets to anyone who passes.

Music is one of the many commodities which, in the digital age, no longer has an appreciable physical substance. “Bits” are the modern iteration of idea. And ideas, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out 200 years ago, can only be “owned” if they are kept private or secret, which rather defeats their point. So performers are increasingly relying, and ultimately may rely entirely for their income, on tangibles — live performances, merchandise and so on — and find themselves in the odd position of being more likely to succeed and become famous if they ignore their own copyrights. 

Given such a new music industry paradigm (along with a host of other new and highly pervasive sharing models) the economics of free is especially good news for young people, and most specifically for students — which today we all like to think we are in spirit until aged 50 at least. 

Being short of money and by extension “youthful” is practically chic. And “free” as the price of any digitalised or digitalis-able product is now more than a desirable price for the youthful, real or wannabe. Free is an absolute expectation. 

Free also tends to mean free, not almost free. In Japan, young consumers are paying small amounts for their mobile phone entertainment streams, but in the West there’s a crucial difference between cheap and free, according to Josh Kopelman, a venture capitalist quoted in a recent Wired magazine article on the economics of free. Kopelman calls this “the penny gap”.

“People think demand is elastic and that volume falls in a straight line as price rises, but the truth is that zero is one market and any other price is another. In many cases, that’s the difference between a great market and none at all,” Kopelman is quoted as saying by Wired‘s editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, who is also author of a 2009 book, FREE

Another way of understanding how Kopelman’s penny gap has made principled tightwads of us all is to consider your own attitude to a search engine like Google. Ask yourself how much, in monetary terms, Google is worth to you as a searcher. (Businesses using Google as a sales driver are excused from this exercise as they know well that for them it’s almost as expensive a medium as “old media”.) I imagine I am fairly typical as a consumer of Google in using the site dozens of times a day. If Google were to ask me for, say, £200, or even £2,000 a month for their services, it would be hard to argue that it was not worth the money: Google does a job in nanoseconds that would take months for an army of researchers. Yet in reality, any search engine that asked searchers for a few dollars a month, or even a few pennies, would go out of business in an hour. Even if some people were prepared to pay, the business would implode because its model is dependent on vast numbers of people using it. 

Free, therefore, the free-ness that students used to be attracted to in the form of complimentary ballpoints when they opened a bank account, is now almost part of our DNA, thanks to the internet. And the sharing notion spearheaded by the economics of free happily meshes with other current philosophies. Sharing resources is a siren call, for example, to those concerned about the environment and overconsumption. Further, it accommodates the idealistic need that billions of people now harbour for a viable expression of some kind of egalitarianism, now that socialism is widely regarded as dated and inadequate. 

The sharing ethic also satisfies a need, motivated notably by Ralph Nader-ism and later consumers’ rights movements, to reboot the relationship between business and the individual, in favour of the individual, but with concomitant benefits to clever businesses. The internet is a perfect leveller of the retail playing field, according to the Texan computer magnate Michael Dell, founder of Dell computers and arguably as revolutionary a figure in computing as Henry Ford was in personal transport. Thousands of acres across the world housing massive hangars of Dell servers are the physical reality of the internet, the home of the much-vaunted “Cloud” of shared information and computing capacity. 

Dell, in his autobiography, Direct From Dell, says: “The internet puts control firmly in the hands of the buyer, not the seller, as geography and physical location become largely irrelevant to price and product selection.”

The convergence of computers and mobile phones alongside the drive towards free-to-user is also causing many commercial telephony providers to come up with innovative ideas, all of which cut a young person’s — or anyone else’s — communication costs to a big fat zero much of the time. Skype has made telephone and video conferencing free for private and business users. Google is in the process of integrating free telephone calls into its free email service. And you can even Skype free from many mobile phones. 

The brave new sharing world is still in nappies. It’s not even a toddler yet. The question of how businesses will sustainably monetise their free-to-user online operations is also hugely important and largely unresolved. There are concerns over security issues within the Cloud, even worries over finding the power to run those ever more ubiquitous farms of computer servers. 

Yet among knowledgeable computer industry figures, a mood of optimism prevails — optimism that the sharing, super-connected world of the future is going to continue to amaze and delight us more, perhaps, than we can imagine. 

A senior Dell engineer, Forrest Norrod, suggests that the new sharing world could even be part of our evolution as a species. “Millions of years ago, humans developed a mechanism to communicate more efficiently and with greater information content than other species,” says Norrod. “We evolved speech, then drawing, then writing. And each time, we have increased the amount of information content that can be efficiently communicated between people. Because of that, we have upped our ability to learn and our ability to share and transmit knowledge. This is the fundamental underpinning of who we are. And I am sure our brains have adapted and eventually will evolve.

“All forms of communication, and now Cloud computing, continue to develop and make the cost of communication and the cost of sharing information lower and lower and lower. It’s now practically zero. If you extrapolate this out, eventually it’s just zero cost to instantaneously access any other person or any piece of data in the world.”

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