Cheap vs Free: so close, yet so far?
Two Twitter strands intersected for me yesterday, and demonstrated something fundamental about the potentially corrosive nature of value perceptions.
One the one hand, you have the launch of Chris Anderson’s new book, Free (which will actually be free in some formats…tho not all ironically…but is it still OK if I ‘borrow’ the £18 hard back?).
Aside from some of the finer nuances in the Gladwell vs Anderson debate, ‘free’ in this (digital) context at least, seems universally positioned as a good thing: positive, empowering, interactive, unifying, the way the future will be. And the implication is that to think otherwise makes you some kind of cultural Luddite.
Which may or may not be the case.
At the same time I had a Twitter conversation with @charlesfrith, triggered by news that staff at Primark, home of all things cheap, had been commenting on Facebook about the ‘pikey’ nature of its clientele – those always on the look out for a ‘bargain’, who can’t see why you would pay £5 for a t-shirt (let alone £15) when you can get one for £2.
But as Charles said: “wait till third world trainer makers can leave a comment on the Nike fan club in Facebook“. Now the fact that Nike are (per se) expensive isn’t the point. It’s the expectation we now have, driven by 2 decades of price cutting retail competition (enforced through purchasing muscle), that cheap is our consumer right and damn the consequences for others (what ‘others’? what ‘consequences’? = precisely).
Accepting that affluence and monetary requirements are culturally relative, we cannot hide from the fact that our ‘right’ to cheap is built on the penury suffering, even slavery, of others. With environmental problems often running alongside. THAT is the reason why everything from clothes to fruit is as cheap as we expect it to be.
Which is clearly wrong and has to end.
This belief is why I originally got into Fairtrade products back in the early 90s, way before Tesco realised they could sell them at a premium (all theirs obviously) to the hand-wringing liberal middle classes, becaming a wholesaler for Traidcraft. Because if money doesn’t get back to the producer they will (in the worst cases) die because of our desire for ‘good value’. Something we don’t often think about. And no, I don’t believe the theoretical yet patently non-existent benefits of ‘free’ (sic) trade can solve this problem.
And the end of the day, whether you side with Malcolm or not, what could happen to a subsistence farmer in Africa who isn’t paid fairly is unlikely happen to him (or any ‘creative’ person in the developed countries).
Which brings us back full circle to my concern about the current debate in the digital space re Free. Which is nothing to do with how Gladwell, Metallica et al (or even less famous names) get paid for their efforts.
Rather, it’s a concern that the digital drive to free (which I broadly agree with) will simply reinforce our more generally reduced conception of ‘value’, and the transitory, disposable nature of ‘stuff’ this causes (if it cost me nothing, what does it matter). And that this, in turn, exacerbates our expectations that ‘stuff’ should be cheap if not free in ALL areas of life by right.
Because this is the positive modern way for things to be. And ‘producers’ who say otherwise are just ‘the man’ out to make some excess profit.
Just don’t tell the third world wage (and literal) slaves that.
It’s just wrong, and time therefore to recognise the distinction between ‘cheap’ and ‘free’ and do something about the former as vigorously as we champion the latter.
Because the implications are not just for the producers we are screwing. Toxic materialism makes us unpleasently and narrow mindedly selfish and self-centred, which has personal, social and cultural consequences for us all.
And that’s not who I want to be.