Against the fantasy of something for nothing

(Beyond my bedroom window: the snow comes down, the pigeons sit askant, at odd angles, one here, another there as if playing with me.)

(The birds, unseen, are singing amid the gently falling snow. Pure sprightly delight.)

We have inherited a misguided public philosophy concerning the desirability of “free things.” The fantasy that, all things being equal, it is better to get something for nothing has sunk deep into our collective way of life.

Look around you, virtually anywhere, and you’ll find this misconception running wild. There is the good deal, the sweat deal, the bargain, credit default swaps, the tragedy of the commons, the unpaid internship, the free sample, the free school, free education, free content on the web… A few days ago, I traced this fantasy back to a more primitive desire to escape mutual dependency by trying to maximize receivings and minimize givings. The background assumption of the “something for nothing” is that a world of scarcity has created a sense of Hobbesian hostility.

Concerning the scene of transaction, it would be no exaggeration to say that the con is the reductio ad absurdum of our insatiable desire for “free things.” Concerning the metaphysical picture of selfhood, the image is that of the “inner citadel,” a being invulnerable to harm, a creature as self-sufficient as god.

One place where you can see this picture of freedom being brought out into the open is in Jaron Lanier’s New York Times Op-ed, “SOPA Boycotts and the False Ideals of the Web” (January 18, 2012). The claim that content wants to be free is not only false; it is not only a fetish that hides the real human relations; it is also, and most certainly, an ideal we end up paying for on the back end.

Enjoy, make snow angels, and have a lovely weekend!

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