For and against free stuff
 
Jaron Lanier is, as always, interesting when he calls for the platforms to abandon the one-size-fits-all 'free stuff' model, and offer a paid service instead. But he's interesting in an interesting way.

For Lanier, the tragic mistake of the internet was the "lefty, socialist mission" of making everything free, or as free as possible. In this view, the superabundance of shit on the internet is the result of a deflected revolution.

This isn't sustainable. There have always been tech utopians with a vaguely 'left' character. There are the pioneers of the Whole Earth Network and the Acid Test hippies who inspired them. There are the Doug Engelbarts and Stewart Brands. 

And then there is the military-industrial complex which developed the foundational technologies as a Cold War infrastructure, a means to organise the war of all against all, under the law of the nuclear Leviathan. The hardnosed, and often very right-wing capitalists, from Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg to Larry Page and the pro-Trump Libertarian, Peter Thiel, not to mention the venture-capitalists who funded Web 2.0.

To treat the internet's 'free stuff' model as being in some sense lefty or socialist is to miss the point massively. The 'free stuff' model is common in capitalism, especially in capitalist media. Broadcasters and newspapers have, to different degrees, relied on it.

'Free stuff', of course, doesn't escape the logic of the market. It may disrupt some monopolies (Sci-Hub, Pirate Bay, Napster and so on). But it will also tend to redistribute value from one capitalist sector to a new one, and thus create new monopolies (Google, Facebook, etc).

The difference with the internet, then, is its innovation of what Nick Srnicek dubs, in by far the most sophisticated analysis of the problem, 'platform capitalism'. It is no longer a question of simply selling audiences to advertisers, tempted to offer eyeball attention by filler content. Rather, it is a question of inducing constant interactions with a kind of online laboratory apparatus, to produce the data that allows companies to continuously constitute, surveille and define their market.

This is another way of saying, obviously, that there is no 'free stuff'. The offer of 'free stuff' is predicated on a disavowal. We all know there is always a price to pay, somewhere, where it is given a market cost or not. Capitalism offers us the convenience of pretending, of behaving as if there is no price. But in so doing, it denies us the opportunity to consider various possible prices we might be willing and able to pay, and the politics of these alternatives.

This perverse stance may be characteristic of capitalism as such. It isn't, for example, that 'no one knew' that fossil capital would destroy the earth but that we were offered the belief that we could have a bourgeois version of progress without a price. What Paul Gilroy somewhere called 'agno-politics', the politics of deliberately producing ignorance, might be another way of describing the relentless production of a disavowal about the conditions of one's existence. 

Don't think about it: if not the paternal state, then the market, this spontaneous order, will provide. Or, if you like, think about it as if you invented the whole thing, the internet and all its objects, every time you log on.

Obviously, it isn't good enough simply to attack ignorance or disavowal. For one thing, this would miss the fact that the illusion of eternal plenty without a price can only leave people feeling profoundly anxious. Because, after all, one must wonder, if there's so much stuff out there, why am I never satisfied? (Answer: because there's so much stuff out there.) The perverse subject of late capitalism isn't particularly happy, and always has to contrive a way to impose a limit somewhere. To attack disavowal is to evade the subjective stakes.

By the same token, simply attacking the 'free stuff' economy, in the name of a subscription model, suppresses the politics of the price. It evades the problems with capitalist pricing and distribution: classed, raced, sexed differentials of access among other things. These things are not incidental to the fact that fantasies of online plenty are quite popular. Or to the fact that these fantasies have been so successfully exploited and monetised by platform capitalists. There are questions of property, justice and exploitation -- and above all, democracy and public control -- which are dodged when the problem is posed in terms of one market format vs another.

Why replace one lie with another?