How much does "free" really cost?

In Life After Google, George Gilder writes that we're paying a heavy cost for "free."

  • The famed technology and financial writer says we're paying for "free" with our most valuable resource: time.
  • Gilder predicts that the lack of focus on security will be Google's downfall.
  • He says decentralization offered by blockchain technology will be the only path forward.

Everyone loves free. It's hard to find any marketing pitch today without the word in it. There's always someone ready to give up the goods at no cost to you. Free has become such a bargain that the idea of paying for anything anymore seems antiquated and ludicrous.

Of course, nothing is truly free.

So the question: What are we actually paying with?

Time.

That's the argument that George Gilder makes in his nineteenth book, Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy. Gilder's accolades are many. Thanks to his plea for supply-side economics and capitalism, he was Ronald Reagan's most quoted living author. While his ideas about religion are questionable—he supports intelligent design—he's also, somewhat ironically, been a leading technology thinker. In 1990, for example, he predicted computers would make television obsolete.

Around that time, the idea of a network of linked computers was just starting to emerge in the public consciousness. The revolution promised freedom, but it hasn't panned out that way. A handful of tech companies now dominate two economies: monetary, sure, but also attention. Apple, at least, makes a physical product, something Gilder supports. Google, however, relies on the concept of "free" to sell its advertising model. And Gilder thinks this will be its undoing.

Most alarmingly, in the race for attention (and hence, time), leading technology companies have sacrificed security, what Gilder calls "the most crucial part of any system." If security isn't considered from the outset, the architecture must be replaced. Because the promise of the early internet has turned into the exact opposite, companies like Google are not going to replace the infrastructure they've spent billions creating. Their fortresses have become prisons.

The concentration of data in walled gardens increases the cost of security. The industry sought safety in centralization. But centralization is not safe.

Decentralization, he continues, is much safer than having all your data tied up in one company's servers. Centralization creates conformity. In Skin in the Game, Lebanese-American risk analyst and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses a previous powerhouse of conformity, IBM, which required its employees to wear white shirts and dark blue suits. Such uniform mentality served the employees well inside of the system. When Microsoft forced IBM to lay off many "lifers" as the internet emerged, however, "these people couldn't find a job elsewhere; they were of no use to anyone outside of IBM."

We are all part of Google's world, whenever we use Gmail or any of its many free applications. Yet someone—us—is paying for those services. Us. One of Gilder's ten rules of the cryptocosm (his term for the coming digital system run by blockchain) is that "time is the final measure of cost."

Photo: Alex Guillaume / Unsplash

That time is divided in many ways. Try to navigate the current world of digital journalism and you'll quickly find frustration in the load time (most fees associated with going online on your phone are thanks to ads), auto-play videos, pop-up banners, and ads that you can't shake no matter how diligently you scroll. Visit USA Today's site and you'll be met with an assault of all of these blockers to content and more. Actually, don't visit that site, unless you want to discover a ring of hell Dante could not have foreseen. Or, as Gilder puts it,

Google's Free World is a way of brazenly defying the centrality of time in economics and reaching beyond the wallets of its customers to seize their time.

And time is all we really have. If you want real "f*** you money," Taleb writes, then be broke. You might not feel rich, but you'll have all the time in the world—the true measure of freedom. While this sounds counterintuitive, that's likely because our intuition, which has been drilled into us ad nauseam for a century, is that money frees us so we have more time. Taleb argues the opposite: money steals time as we become dependent on acquiring the money that takes up all of our time.

Which is the model Google relies on. Without a tangible product all they can offer is distraction. No one at the end of their life says, "I didn't spend enough time on my phone." Yet that's the expensive cost of free, and we're all paying it handsomely.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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