No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

It had been an excellent dinner, and I was pleasantly full of rice and meat and good bread.

“This was delicious,” I said, accepting another glass of wine. “Thanks a lot for having me.”

“Oh, we were delighted to finally get hold of you!” said my friend. “So… er, whilst you’re here, I wonder if you could take a look at something on my computer…”

Three hours later, as I walked down their driveway in the feeble glimmer of streetlights, I reflected on the truth of the old aphorism: there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

This is common knowledge, but despite that there’s a kind of myopic optimism that we almost all wholeheartedly participate in. Many things that we use or benefit from are “free”, but in almost every case this is a misnomer — the ways in which we’re paying for them just aren’t straightforward.

News recently emerged that in January 2012 Facebook conducted a grand-scale social experiment, “tinkering with users feeds” in order to ascertain whether a negative emotional state could be contagious when spread through social networks. Basically, they showed more negative things than positive things to a set of people, then watched to see whether this affected what those people posted. Through this they determined that, yes, showing people negative things made them respond with more negativity. They did this, of course, completely without the knowledge of any of the users involved.

Mildly shocking, sure. Negatively manipulating people’s emotions on a grand scale like this — for such spurious reasons — isn’t very nice. It’s just another day at Facebook, who (as much as they might couch it in flowery “connecting people” language) are in it for the money, like every other business on the planet.

But are you surprised? Every time you sign up for a service that’s “free”, you’re going to find out eventually that all that means is you don’t pay them money directly. In the case of Facebook, you pay them by looking at ads, and now, apparently, by being a free guinea pig in their social experiments.

It’s the same for Google products. When you use Gmail, or Google Calendar, or all their other “free” services, you’re paying with your eyeballs on the ads they sell. You’re also probably paying by letting them look at all of your data, and most likely monetize that in some way.

Heck, when you’re reading most blogs, you’re not paying for it. But you sort of are, if they have ads. It’s free content, but you’re paying for it with attention.

Paying with your attention or time or data isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m happy to be on Twitter without paying for it (although I did have high hopes for but that makes me uneasy for email, so I use Fastmail (which I’d recommend.)

The important thing isn’t that we pay for everything, nor is it that we expect our free services to start treating us like paying customers. The only thing we have to do is make sure we’re aware of how we’re paying, and decide whether we’re OK with that. If we’re not OK with companies fiddling with our data, then we have to find some way to make sure that they don’t — usually switching to something paid, or limiting what we upload to their service.

Because there really is no such thing as a free lunch.