Better Than Free

Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, has some opinions about VALUESpecifically, he’s been thinking about what in the world we’re willing to pay for.

His shortlist? Immediacy, Personalization, Authenticity, Findability, Embodiment, Interpretation, Accessibility, Attention, and Patronage. Kelly believes that in a world full of screens that impose massive interaction, unlimited sharing and access, our lives are characterized by a sort of “data immersion”. We’re literally swimming in a sea of megabytes. Finding value in this medium is a daunting task. Generating value (and being able to make a living by doing so) is even more difficult.

For Kelly, the only thing of value is the thing that cannot be copied. He argues (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/01/better_than_fre.php) that if something can be reproduced, it will be, and in a world of open access and sharing its price will quickly tend toward free. $0. Nada. If we assume that the marketplace is the court of arbitration for value (by no means a given), then we are willing to pay for things that we value. Seen in this light, Kelly’s list of things we will pay for is certainly interesting. Let’s look at them one at a time.

IMMEDIACY! Although I might obtain this thing or this experience for free if I’m willing to wait, I want it now.Instant gratification therefore comes at a price. If you want it faster, you pay. Our parents told us: “All good things come to those who wait!” Now my high-speed internet provider tells me: “Those who wait are losers.” We now value the speed of having something over the appreciation of earning something. A good thing in a world of easy credit?

PERSONALIZATION. It’s not called the I-phone for nothing. The present sales problem for mass merchandising in our post-industrial world is to get the mass out of the merchandise. Where a product is generic, the tendency will be to look for access to it, rather than ownership of it. Sharing a bicycle means I need less bicycle, and access to that bicycle means my transport needs get satisfied. But having a bicycle with my choice of pink handlebar streamers and a bell with a distinct ring tone will help to perpetuate the sale of the NEW, since I’m really buying personal choices, not transportation. This has the added advantage that the merchandise has very little resale value, since what I purchased is myself, rather than the thing. I am the only market for me. The beauty of the I-phone is that it’s really a piece of infrastructure that I can use to purchase me, over and over and over, through small personalized consumer choices of music, ring tone, connection, app, and virtual experience.

AUTHENTICITY. Do you wish to have the “real” thing? Will you pay for that? Kelly argues that we will pay to own the original. What’s interesting in the world of collectibles is how few original things there really are, and how far we’re willing to bend the definition of “original” to create more of them. It will be interesting to see how far we turn to aspects of authenticity that lie beyond the reach of the market, like authentic relationships, and originals that are created with our own efforts rather than the efforts of others.

FINDABILITY. Kelly argues that people will pay for guidance. In a confusing sea of choices, navigation is what we need. Where in this mass of data am I? Well, for a price we will help you “explore” this universe, and as you do we can “explore” you, mining your every keystroke so that we can bring you things and experiences that reinforce who you are. Eventually the medium will know you so well that instead of you exploring new possibilities, it can simply present you, to you. Marco Polo had no reason to travel, if his was not a journey of discovery.

EMBODIMENT. In many ways this is the intersection of authenticity and immediacy. Kelly believes that the internet is essentially a super-copying machine. Everything that enters its flow moves by copying. So in the end, the content is of little value. What people will pay for are the live performances, the real time experiences. Strange though, that the value of the film is its opening night, while its profits derive from distribution rights. Why not concentrate on making opening nights, rather than movies? Perhaps there’s hope for live theatre and dance after all.

INTERPRETATION. As Kelly puts it, the software is free, the manual is $10,000. In other words, there is a market for meaning. Tell me what it means. Tell me how to use it. This points to a real gap in our understanding of information, namely that’s its just that. Information. It’s just lying around. Only meaning uses information. Not the other way round. Relying on others to tell you what it means is a slippery slope.

ACCESSIBILITY. There is a market for declutterers. We pay them to organize our closets and pick our socks off the floor. In an infinite universe of copies of information, media, and browsers, the challenge is in staying organized. In past times, memory was linked to the virtue of prudence. How could you avoid sin if you could not remember what it was? Like interpretation, there’s danger in paying others to remember for you.

ATTENTION. People will pay you to give them attention. Waiters’ and bartenders’ Tip Number 1. Really? The only problem with the marketplace of attention is attention is not caring. You can never really pay someone enough to care. That has to be freely given.

And finally. PATRONAGE. The internet is helping us to rediscover the idea of patronage. In this medium of endless copying and unlicensed downloading, it’s emerging that people can and do support effort and creation. It authenticates their experience of the offering, and connects them to those who produce culture. By making simple and small donations, those who enjoy a work, and feel enriched by it, can gain further satisfaction by showing appreciation in tangible forms. We just don’t want to pay the middle man, the distributor, or the profiteer.

In this idea of patronage, there is an incredibly hopeful lifeline here for all of us. Reaching out to your local arts community, music scene, theatre, or architect can place you immediately, personally, and accessibly at the birth of an idea, of an offering that benefits us all. You will be there at ground zero. You will explore what it means to create. Not free. Better than free! Vital!

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