Free as . . . - RSA

Free as . . .


  • Climate change

This week I’ve been recalling the iconic line from Withnail and I, “Free to those that can afford it, but very expensive to those that can’t”.

This sprang to mind while reading in the Guardian about Freeconomics – Chris Anderson’s idea that companies are giving away many of their goods for free, and opening up new revenue streams elsewhere. For example, a colleague recently upgraded her phone with a particular network, and in return received not only a free new phone, but also an i-pod nano.

The business model here is based on the assumption that since i-pod will only play i-tunes formatted songs, Apple is broadening its consumer base. Given how cheap manufacturing has become, thanks to globalisation, it is actually a cost effective way of distributing goods and then making people pay for the services later.

In large part major corporates are responding to the rise of what Matt Mason (who spoke here yesterday) calls The Pirates Dilemma – which is about how corporations can compete / collaborate with the people who distribute their intellectual property without paying royalties or receiving consent.

The new economics of the internet is part of a more general reappraisal both of the ‘big’ economics of markets, risk and regulation but also the day to day economics of our own consumption patterns. Things can change quickly.

Twenty years ago the value of a family house in the London suburbs was equivalent to the cost of about 400 good quality video players. Now, even with the housing market slowdown, you could buy 16,000 multi functional DVD players for the price of the same house. In the 1980s we would have expected to pay a lot more for an item of clothing than a basic foodstuff but now you can get a perfectly serviceable t- shirt for less than a good loaf of bread. It’s easy to get disorientated about the real costs and value of stuff.

With food and raw material shortages, and climate change, a key issue in the politics of consumption is waste. Whether its white goods with built in obsolescence or the tons of good food we chuck into dustbins every day I wonder whether we are approaching the end of the disposable society.

We have no idea how much producing a kilo of meat costs in environmental or economic terms, we have no idea what the real costs of making our i-pod are in labour or any other sense. We suspect corporations of overcharging for cheap goods – and they may well be in some cases. But what we must do is regain some perspective on consumption, for the good of our planet, or even just for our own peace of mind.

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