The time cost of free goods

by Rob Horning

20 June 2008


If goods become free, but consumption takes time, we may find ourselves in danger of being overwhelmed with things we have acquired that are demanding the time to be used. This hidden time cost of seemingly free things is easy to overlook, because we don’t customarily think of goods costing us anything but money. But internet distribution is changing the economics of cultural consumption, unleashing the attention economy, and forcing us to consider how we budget our limited time for information intake. In The Harried Leisure Class, Staffan Linder suggests that we will stop collecting information and consume more ignorantly instead in an effort to cram more consumption into our days, buying first and asking questions later, if ever. We buy goods based on whatever information came to us, via ads or advice, rather than expend precious consumption time doing our own research.

But isn’t it Google that is supposedly “making us stupid,” as Nicolas Carr argues in this Atlantic piece? Though Google is in some ways the ultimate research tool, reducing the time necessary to find information (hence the end of pointless arguments about factual things at family meals; now we just look things up), it also gives us information without much context, without our having to make the effort to organize our investigations. It also gives us way too much information, more or less indiscriminately—our searches aren’t always particularly refined. And Carr’s point is that it changes how we read: Citing developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, he writes,

the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

The advantage reaped by the speed with which we can acquire information is negated by the sheer amount that comes back at us. And the ease at which we get this plenitude tempts us into the shallow, efficiency-oriented pseudo-reading that Carr is concerned about. The time we have to read is limited, and we have so much more to read, that inevitably we start to select the easier stuff to read so we can feel like we are sucking down more of it.

I think about this sometimes when I’m editing, honing text and deleting words and tightening prose and resolving ambiguities and misleading phrasings so that it may be more easily processed by readers. I’m helping them read it faster so they will understand it more quickly, but at a much more superficial level. As Carr writes, “Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.”

Linder argues that as we become squeezed for consumption time, we’ll consume more expensive things over cheaper things when possible to make use of more goods on a total-cost basis. But when the cost of goods is zero, what happens then? As behavioral economists (most vociferously, Dan Ariely) have pointed out, we find the promise of free things hard to resist (even when a little thinking reveals that the free-ness is illusory). So when with very little effort we can accumulate massive amounts of “free” stuff from various places on the internet, we can easily end up with 46 days (and counting) worth of unplayed music on a hard drive. We end up with a permanent 1,000+ unread posts in our RSS reader, and a lingering, unshakable feeling that we’ll never catch up, never be truly informed, never feel comfortable with what we’ve managed to take in, which is always in the process of being undermined by the free information feeds we’ve set up for ourselves. We end up haunted by the potential of the free stuff we accumulate, and our enjoyment of any of it becomes severely impinged. The leisure and unparalleled bounty of a virtually unlimited access to culture ends up being an endless source of further stress, as we feel compelled to take it all in. Nothing sinks in as we try to rush through it all, and our rushing does nothing to keep us from falling further behind—often when I attempt to tackle the unread posts in my RSS reader, I end up finding new feeds to add, and so on, and I end up further behind than when I started. It’s hard enough for me to delete a feed from Google reader; it’s even harder to get rid of unneeded stuff I’ve taken physical possession of, even if it was free to begin with, even if I can remember vividly fishing it out of a pile of garbage on my walk home from the subway. (Sometimes that little self-aggrandizing narrative makes it harder. Such stuff plays into my fantasy of myself as some kind of shrewd scavenger, beating the “system” by living off its cast-off crap—I tend to forget that the deluded hippies in the Manson family had the same dream.)

One way of coping with the problem of being overwhelmed with free stuff is to voluntarily impose prices, a kind of Pigovian tax that internalizes the time costs of consumption. Steve Randy Waldman, in detailing his idea for a postage system for email, is attacking a related problem—because emailing is free, there is nothing stopping us from being inundated with unwanted messages, but if the sender was willing to pay, we might take that into account and become willing to read. And if it’s a message we wanted, from someone we know, we could refund the postage.

The receiver of the mail would set the postage rate and get the money. That is, you do not pay a postal service for delivering mail (that’s free in the internet age), you pay the recipient for the burden your correspondence places upon her attention…. It would serve as a guarantee of nonabusiveness, but would rarely be paid. Therefore, people could set their postage rates fairly high without losing mail they care about.

But what about when we abuse ourselves, say, by signing up for Rapidshare and downloading every album posted on an mp3 blog? It’s hard to imagine volunteering to pay for something you know you can get for free, but then we risk making everything we have accumulated worthless from the sheer inability to find anything or decide among things.

I often feel like I’m strung between two conflicting ideologies, and outmoded one oriented toward getting as much as you can, and a new one oriented toward navigating an endless tide of information. They are basically two different ways of looking at how to anchor one’s identity, with the side effect of structuring how we consume. The epitome of the old way was to become a collector, to see yourself in stuff; the new ideology points us toward seeking fame, to see ourselves reflected back in the shimmering pool of digitized information.


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