Doug Rushkoff on the pernicious myth of 'Free'

‘Free’ is absolutely a myth.”

Douglas Rushkoff is an author, teacher, documentarian and media theorist. In December 2009 he gave an interview to BBC discussing the realities of ‘free’ content and services on the web.

  • Date of recording: Wed, 2009-12-02
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00:00 Doug: Look at the devolution of-, the way we represent ourselves online has devolved from the quirky, personalised HTML webpage, homepage of the ’90s, to the somewhat modular but still strange presence of a MySpace page, to the completely formatted and market-friendly presence of a Facebook page. You know, what we’ve done is moved from personal, human, open-ended self-expression to completely market and computer-friendly regimented and conformist expression. And that’s because we’ve turned the net from a venue for self-expression, to a way to render ourselves up onto the market. 01:04 You know, as a result the internet does not foster humanity, you know, the internet is about human beings conforming to the needs of technology as understood by the market, rather than human beings getting technology to extend and express what it means to be a human being. And that’s why the net has moved from being part of a human potential movement to part of the, really, anti-human movement.

01:38 Intv: How do you - or do you think that Google helps to create the ‘free web’?

01:53 Doug: Google on the internet serves almost the same function as the World Bank in the globe. In other words, Google talks about everything being free, open source and all shared, Google wants every system to be open. But what Google really want is every system to be open to Google so that Google can serve ads through every piece of technology. You know, the same way that the World Bank says, ‘Oh, we want to give money to all these developing nations as long as they open their markets to first world activity. That means, we’re going to give them money so that they allow a factory to be opened on their land, you know, we’re going to give them money so they have the privilege of paying us back with interest.’ And that’s um that’s not just openness, that’s openness to a certain thing. So, I must applaud the Google Android and this great system and it’s going to be on phones and all that, but they want to be open for a reason, you know, they understand that because they do basically have a monopoly right now um information and the way it’s spread and the way it’s categorised, the way we understand it, that the more open systems they can have, the fewer boundaries that anyone is allowed to erect to anything, then the fewer boundaries there are to Google. You know, the-, 03:29 there’s a myth online that what we’re doing is free. All that’s happened is the place that revenue and value is extracted from us has been shifted. So yes, I might download a movie for free from the internet, but who’s made that movie? Someone who’s bought a Macintosh and a Sony camera, made their movie and edited it on Final Cut that they paid for, and uploaded it with their, you know, Time Warner AT&T broadband and stuck it on YouTube, which is a Google-owned server. You know, they’ve paid nine corporations for the privilege of making and uploading a movie that they would’ve simply paid for before, to download and watch the movie. You know what I mean? I’m still paying Time Warner for movies, I’m just paying them now to make movies instead of to watch them.

04:33 Intv: So ‘free’ is a myth?

Doug:  ‘Free’ is absolutely a myth. 04:40 The only thing that-, the only thing that’s changed is that there are new ways to extract value from people who are working. Nothing is-, nothing is free, nothing is free. You know, you are paying for your free Guardian, you’re just paying for it by buying the computer and buying the online time, and upgrading your system, and getting the new computer and then buying the computer for your kid, you know, and then paying for the power. You are still paying, you’re just paying different companies. Sometimes you’re paying the same company. Sony owns music and computers, so they’re selling you one thing to rob from the other side of their company, you know, but you’re still paying. The only thing that’s different, is things-, 05:52 the only thing that’s changed is that which was in scarcity, and that which was in abundance. So, the technology through which to watch the news was in such abundance by the 1980s that there were no American television manufacturers left by the late ’80s, because everybody had a TV, they all lasted a long time, it didn’t matter. Now, everybody’s getting a new computer every year or two, or a new device, and a new iPhone and a new this, there’s a tremendous market for that stuff, but the content is basically free because there’s so many people in companies out there trying to make content, trying to write their articles.

06:43 Doug: there’s a real danger among er technology and media theorists today, in that they accept the sort of libertarian understanding of the market as a given, in reality, that they just assume that that’s the way things work. They haven’t looked at the history of money. They don’t understand that making markets for scarce things is the result of having a kind of money that is released in a scarce way. This is a better way of saying it: 07:32 for all these people’s understanding of open source and programmes, they refuse to acknowledge that the money we use is also a programme, that it is a closed source programme. It’s as if you woke up one day and all the computers had Microsoft Windows on it, you wouldn’t know that there’s any other operating system. Well the money we use is also an operating system that was invented during the Renaissance, and it was invented for a top down scarcity model of media and culture and technology and everything. Now we’ve got a decentralised technological system with computers all over the place and people creating value all over the place, but we’re still using a 13th century money system. 08:23 You end up with these contradictions that guys like Chris Anderson call ‘free’, that means all the stuff is free! No, it doesn’t mean it’s free, it means we need to now develop an economic platform capable of dealing with the distributed decentralised value-creation economy. And that’s not that-, I don’t think that’s too complex for a documentary. I mean I think that’s an im-, you know what I mean? I think that’s- It’s not a crazy point. The fundamental flaw with the free… Alright…

09:05 Things are free and things are devalued now. I can’t get paid to write because there’s so much writing out there. But this is a temporary stage, this is not a function of technology, but a function of economics. You know, the crash that we’re going through now, this upset in central banking, is largely a result of the ability of people all throughout the periphery to create value without capital. That’s a really strange thing. In the old days, if you wanted to create value you needed to go to the bank, borrow money, set up your factory and do this thing. Now you can create value without going to the bank, without getting that central capital upfront. That’s what’s created the confusion, that’s what’s upset the banks. There’s no longer a market for their product, which is cash, so what do you do? Well, there’s big wobble until that’s figured out, and that’s why we have this problem of the free. 10:12 And this is not forever. In other words, journalism sucks now, music sucks now, media sucks now, because everyone can kind of make this stuff. The only reason everyone can make this stuff is because there’s way too many outlets. You know, every time Britney Spears pops a zit there’s 400 news vans outside her house to cover it, you know, and probably two or three news vans could easily cover her popping a zit enough for everybody. You know, the fact that there’s all of this surplus um that does need to end, and some people will lose their jobs over it, and hopefully it will be the people who don’t do it well who lose their jobs over it and the people who do do it well can stay.