Saturday, 2 September 2017

What's free?

You’ll have heard people say that nothing in life is free. Others might have told you that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The general consensus is that everything has a cost.

But is that true? Is there anything you can get for free?

Some technical nerds (like me) will tell you that even the things you think are for free aren’t. Facebook, for instance. Facebook is free, isn’t it? No, it’s not, even though it costs you nothing to register, you know that it‘ll use your precious data to post things and to wade through the inconsequential nonsense in your search for chrmesomething interesting, don’t you? Yes, there are image-free options that don’t use airtime and that certain network providers offer “for free” in the packages you buy but either way, even if you’re not paying for Facebook in money, airtime or data you’re certainly paying for it in another way. In return for access to their connections and your Facebook “friends”, you’re paying in a currency you probably didn’t ever consider. Privacy.

When you sign up for Facebook you “sign” an online agreement that says Facebook owns you. Not like a slave but they have the right to do almost anything they please with the photos you post, your friendship connections, the groups you join and the pages you like for their advantage. Of course they’re not going to use them for anything criminal or too dubious but they are going to mine them for nuggets of information they can use to exploit your use of their systems. Most importantly they’ll be targeting advertisements at you based on the understanding they, or rather their cleverly programmed computer systems, develop about you. If it’s obvious from your posts and the pages you like that you’re interested in financial matters then the ads you see will focus more on such things. If it appears that you’re very interested in sport then you’ll probably see more ads for sports news pages and online betting services. If they see that you like Donald Trump they can obviously market anti-psychotic drugs in your direction. It’s intelligence-based advertising that you permitted them to do. Yes, you did, in that agreement you signed electronically, you remember the one you chose not to read?

And no, before you ask, I didn’t read mine either. I found this out later.

And should you complain? Should you feel aggrieved or upset that you agreed to share your personal material with Facebook? No, I don’t think you should. They are, after all, giving you space on the largest global social media channel and the widest communication channel the world has ever known. It’s remarkable it’s even free, considering the amount of work that’s gone into developing it.

What else is free? What about education?

Yes, education can be free. No, I don’t mean qualifications, they always cost money, I mean a wider education. The source, however, is both the solution and the problem. The internet is a remarkable source of education. It’s also an enormous supply of misinformation, nonsense and deliberate deceptions. In a matter of seconds you can find “evidence” that the world is run by alien reptiles, that vaccines cause autism, that homeopathy has some beneficial effect and that the world is flat. Of course, all of these “facts” are nothing of the sort, every one of them is utter nonsense but if you’re even slightly gullible you might fall for them if you believe what you read on the internet. The good news is that despite the vast amount of rubbish on the web, there are sources of high-quality information and educational resources that you can use for free. I’ll post links in the online version of this article. (Udemy, University of Oxford, BBC, TED)

Those of us who own smartphones will also have access to some rather wonderful free things. Ignoring the data download costs, the Facebook and Messenger Apps, along with WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Google Maps, TripAdvisor and an enormous range of news, health, weather and productivity apps are all free. And genuinely useful.

And then there are sources of information. I know certain friends and colleagues will sigh when I mention Wikipedia but it’s not as bad as many people make out. Yes, the truly remarkable thing about Wikipedia is that it’s an encyclopedia, a body of knowledge, that is developed by the public. That does mean that any charlatan, crook of madman can go online and create a page of insane gibberish but it also means that you and I, the rational, (reasonably) sane ones can also go online and correct the lunacy. If you’re a registered user (which also costs precisely nothing) you can then go and see who edited it, when and what changes they made. It might be anarchy but it’s transparent anarchy. It’s what those of us old enough to remember the early days of the internet always hoped it would become. A democratic medium of information exchange. And like all other examples of democracy it’s flawed, slightly out of control and sometimes surprising.

And another thing that’s free. Consumer Watchdog.

Everything that Consumer Watchdog does for the consumers of Botswana has always been free. It’s still free and it always will be. The question we sometimes get from consumers, how much will it cost them for us to help them solve their problem is simple. Nothing. Zero. Not a single thebe.

And here’s one final thing that’s free. Something much more important than anything else I’ve mentioned. Something I firmly believe can change the world for the better. Something that can prevent, ease and settle arguments at a personal and an international level, one of the few things I’d describe as having miraculous properties. Kindness.

Next time you go into a store, a bank, or in fact any company you deal with, go in feeling kind. I know that it’s their job to greet you, their job to humble themselves to your needs, their job to greet you first but get there first. Why don’t you be the surprisingly nice one? You’ll be surprised what good it does to everyone’s life.

And that works for Facebook as well. Be nice. It’s free.

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