Free

Should a book on freegans—that is to say, people who try to live for “free” in the present through appropriating capitalism’s waste, while trying to build a future in which the things people need are provided for “free” through a gift economy—be free?

This is a purely academic question. My “book” on freegans—I’m going to call it that, even though at this point it’s just a really, really long word or PDF document, for which this blog post is a shameless plug—is already free. Even were it to be picked up by a real live academic publisher, I still have no doubt that it would quickly be scanned and shared online, and I would make no effort to stop it.

Despite the fact that reality has gotten ahead of philosophy, I still feel like I increasingly need to think through my position on the question of “free.” I feel it both in general—with advocates for open access at my own university suggesting that publishing in pay-for-access journals is just dumb—and personally—as a number of voices have told me they assume that I would never try to sell a book on freegans. I’m thus starting to wonder about what it means that—as someone who expects his life’s work to consist mostly of reformatted word documents—everything I produce is ultimately going to be free.

*          *         *

I should start by saying that the arguments for making academic products free to the public are, I think, particularly strong. We still have well-heeled institutions (universities and federal research councils) that are willing to pay (some of) us to produce knowledge and to contribute to journals as editors and reviewers. The open access advocates’ strongest argument (ironically made at the same time as we hear slogans like “information just wants to be free”) is that we’ve already paid for research with our tax dollars, so we shouldn’t have to pay for it again. I’m excited about experiments like Sociological Science, the new open-access sociological journal, not so much because I’m sure their model is the wave of the future (author fees for graduate students still are scary-high) but because I believe that experimentation is the only way to find out.

But this is emphatically not the position that most producers of cultural goods—musicians, artists, or authors are in. The other week, I read a New York Times editorial by Jeremy Rifkin who rosily declared that, “The inherent dynamism of competitive markets is bringing costs so far down that many goods and services are becoming nearly free, abundant, and no longer subject to market forces.” The “marginal cost revolution” (about which he is selling a book) has a fairly simple source. There is now a Napster for virtually anything that you can copy on a computer, and because copying a file doesn’t cost money, now books, movies, and music can be “free.”

I suppose I was most annoyed by Rifkin’s editorial because it conflated the “rise of free” with the “rise of anti-capitalism.” When I’ve been told that I really ought to make my book or anything else I write “free,” it’s usually couched in the assumption that “free” and “capitalism” are opposed to one another. But there is nothing inherently anti-capitalist about getting something for free. In fact, the “free” labor of the worker—that is, time spent producing things of value for which the worker is not commensurately paid—is at the root of all profits in a capitalist system.

So long as the things we need to survive—and I’m not talking about books on freegans here, although I do think my book is valuable, but food and housing and all that—are commodified and must be purchased, being told the things you produce are “free” is just another way of saying you are being exploited. And, unlike for academics, we don’t have any sort of public provisioning for the majority of cultural producers, and as such, for most of them, discovering that their products have “zero marginal cost” is not exactly a happy revelation.

And, of course, even as an academic, “free” sounds increasingly scary. When legislators see that students can now access Massive Open Online Courses courses for “free” (at least for the moment), it sounds like a great argument for further defunding public education. And when graduate students are expected to add more students to their sections without an increase of pay–an experience virtually any GSI at Berkeley can recount–they’re working for “free.” And I can’t help but think that the logical consequence of telling us that the books we write will be “free” is that eventually universities will feel they no longer have any obligation to pay us to produce them.

*          *          *

Admittedly, this is all a bit of a straw-person argument. For most of the activists I know—and, especially, the freegans—“free” has a very different meaning. It has nothing to do with price or with the “marginal costs” of production. As I came to understand it, “free” meant that some things are too valuable to have a price—whether necessities like food and shelter or public goods like transportation, the arts, or knowledge. Sure, there were always dumpster divers who thought that wasted food was “free,” but the wiser freegans I knew always recognized that these things had a cost—in human labor or natural resources—which were real. “Free” was, in effect, a way of recognizing that all things have a cost, albeit one that is often poorly captured by “price.”

I’m not against “free.” I’ve read enough anthropology to know that gift economies in which goods and services are shared freely are not a utopia, but a part of the human historical experience and an honest possibility for the future. It’s more an issue of timing, or, you might say, a collective action problem. I’m reluctant to say it’s fine for someone to have free access to everything I produce until I have free access to what others produce. It makes very little sense for some types of things be “free” while others are commoditized. And, frankly, I’m far more concerned about “freeing” things that do have a marginal cost, like food or shelter. I don’t want to sound like those old commercials that said, “You wouldn’t steal a car—Piracy is not a victimless crime”; just that I’d like to be able to steal dinner along with my DVDs.

I didn’t find my book in a dumpster. It’s taken time and money and effort and love. Writing it has involved a great deal of lost opportunities and missed chances. It’s been made possible by the generosity of a host of people and institutions too numerous to name. But don’t worry, I’m not some dirty capitalist or luddite who has yet to get on the digital freedom bus. My book is “free.”

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One thought on “Free

  1. I love this post, Alex. Maybe you could rename your book “Dumpster Dive This Book”. JK, that’s awful. 🙂

    Yes, I found Rifkin’s op-ed annoying as well, and you’ve helped me pin down why. First, the conflation of free and anti-capitalist, and second he doesn’t acknowledge how the “zero marginal cost” phenomenon affects certain industries and people more than others. I really like the redefinition of free as invaluable.

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