From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 25, 1999*: Free

AltaVista, in yet another of its diversions from its original stated purpose of being the best search engine around, has started offering free internet access. Free, by the way, means that you don't pay anything to a service provider, only your phone (or cable) bill. But free of charge doesn't mean free of AltaVista. The catch is, of course, that while we may not have to pay anything for our internet connection, we get a constant advertisement on our computer screen instead. So we're free to have as much internet access as we choose as long as we submit ourselves to being under a constant barrage of streamlined advertising.

Of course we've been primed for this sort of advertising experience for quite a long while already. On our television sets we're constantly reminded what station we're watching with the aid of a small logo in the upper left or right corner of the screen. That reminder is ultimately no more than the station's advertisement for itself. After all, the fact of which station we're watching doesn't have any real influence on the quality of the program we're tuned to. But AltaVista's takeover of our computer screen isn't only one more step in the ongoing march of sponsorship of just about everything. It's also is a prime example of the constantly increasing free offers we're bombarded with.

The internet is a different sort of mass media than television. Television essentially defined us as a mass and offered us programming that was designed for some amorphous median taste. Along with mass programming came mass advertising. Since by the nature of the medium we're all expected to watch the same ads, those ads aim for a non-existent mean which then has to be created. Television culture, so the internet pundits tell us, is mass culture.

But one of the continuing myths of the internet is that when we're connected to the internet we aren't part of a mass. Instead, we can pursue our own interests and define our own tastes. But since living without advertising is an unfathomable possibility, if we're going to be able to define our own tastes, the advertisers are going to have to find some way to individualize their advertisements so that we can continue to maintain a singular feeling of self, yet also continue to buy, buy, buy. Which brings us back to the phenomenon of free.

In addition to free internet access (not only from AltaVista) we're offered, for instance, a free computer for internet surfing, and all we're asked to do, so we read, is fill out a short questionnaire, the purpose of which is to determine what sort of consumers we are so that individualized advertising will appeal to us and cause us to buy. Most local newspapers are, of course, distributed for free. That's mostly because the news in those papers isn't what they're produced for. Instead, their raison d'etre is to bring us lots of advertising. Though by internet advertising standards those advertisements aren't particularly designed for a well defined market, by the nature of their being local they've limited their market appeal. Giving away a computer may be much more expensive than giving away a newspaper, but if the stakes are high enough and advertisement can pinpoint just who I am and what I'm liable to need, it can be a worthwhile investment.

Frankly, I'd love a free computer. Or a free anything for that matter. But nobody seems to be offering me a free television, and just why that might be is a question I've wondered a great deal about. True, it's hard to find anyone who doesn't have a television to whom to offer one, but it's a fair guess that the people getting free computers aren't totally new to that tool either. My guess is that it's not a question of how available these tools are, but rather a question of how well they can fulfill their function as conduits of well defined advertising. My television set doesn't yet carry with it a user profile that lets the advertisers know what sort of things I'm interested in. Thus television advertising is a hit and run sort of activity. But when I log on to the internet, each site that I connect to can cull lots of information about me from my computer, and streamline its approach to my wallet. So giving away a computer can make a good return on the initial investment, whereas it seems as though giving away a television can't.

There are undoubtedly numerous hidden costs involved in internet and computer freebies, though just how paranoid you allow yourself to get is probably more a question of personality than of actual fact.

Amazon books still isn't making a profit from its internet sales, but apparently everyone expects them to. Internet commerce is touted as the way of the future, and if the projected amount of dollars that will be changing hands through internet commerce is anywhere near accurate, giving away a computer to get someone hooked is a sound business maneuver. Purchasing something without a credit card today is close to impossible, and credit card companies are more than happy to find you eligible for their service, because without a card you can't go about purchasing everything in sight which is how they ultimately make their money. It's sort of like getting teenagers started on drugs with a few free samples of cocaine as a means of building a faithful future clientele.

It was apparently Milton Friedman who long ago said that there was no such thing as a free lunch. Frankly, I used to believe that perhaps the internet would prove that claim wrong. Today's giveaway schemes, however, don't seem to have that as their intent. Rather than prove it wrong, it seems that their goal is to hook us into a cycle of delayed payment that will ultimately be lucrative to them, at a cost to us (nothing new in that, is there?). But even when we're dealing with free it's advisable to remember that freedom from having to pay isn't the only possible expression of the word.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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