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If it’s free, you’re the product!

The result you achieve can only be directly proportional to what you invest. The old saying, ‘you get what you pay for’ is a good illustration of this fact. This said, in ‘transactional’ social interactions, we’re always on the lookout for a great deal or wary of insider trading. We are, indiscriminately, tempted by transactions blatantly skewed in our favour. Are we so obsessed by so-called great deals and transactional gains ? Unfortunately, yes, for the vast majority of us. It makes sense to start asking ourselves ‘quasi-existential’ questions as soon as we enjoy a free product or one which is at a non-reasonable discount from market value, say 20 or 30%. I am not referring to the traps of hidden costs (logistics, maintenance, poor quality), rather to the manipulative and intrusive traps which I will detail below.

One thing is certain, sooner or later, you will only get what you paid for! When we enjoy a free service or product, or almost free or quite far from market value, we are often positioning ourselves as a product to be exploited or sold. There are unfortunately many illustrations. Let’s take a practical example. Certain applications, such as True Caller, offer unconditional and free access to identification of the telephone number of anyone you might want to reach, or, conversely, provides you with the name of the owner of a given number. The workings of this application are simple. Upon installation, it immediately scans your contact lists and uploads it to a central data base without you knowing it or feeling it. This action allows the application to continually feed its database with reliable and up-to-date information. No one can imagine what this application does with our personal information. Are they sold, analysed, extrapolated? Only time will tell us more about the intentions and business model of this type of applications.

This is not an isolated example, rather a barbaric tendency of intrusion into the private life of billions of people to monetize their personal information. GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) have similar practices certainly less intrusive than True Caller but have more subtle methods: Targeted marketing, Analytics/Datamining, manipulating online emotions, and more. The philanthropic facade of free or freemium services only hide services far removed from ethics as we perceive them.

Beyond the perverse digital practices described above, the ‘free’ phenomenon is not new and has a psychologically manipulative dimension. The American social psychologist Robert Cialdini has been analysing weapons of manipulation in many studies and intriguing social experiments since the 80’s. Among these weapons reciprocity and inequitable exchange stand out. When we receive a free product or service, we place ourselves in someone else’s debt. In this case, according to Cialdini, in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (First Edition): “Most of us find it highly disagreeable to be in a state of obligation. [..]We have been conditioned to be uncomfortable when beholden.[..]Consequently, we are trained from childhood to chafe, emotionally, under the saddle of obligation. For this reason alone, then, we may be willing to agree to perform a larger favour than we received, merely to relieve ourselves of the psychological burden of debt.”

To sum up, my musings are not supposed to stop you from using free services or to not accept gifts from your partners or friends. I do not aim to push you to paranoia towards what surrounds you, including this article, which is free. My intention is rather to allow you to understand what is at stake in your actions and your attitudes towards possible manipulations or non ethical exploitations which may hide behind reduced-price or free services. These pander to our attraction to easy gains. In a transactional context, any short term imbalance between what you get and what you pay for will catch up with you sooner or later. It is up to you judge and gauge the risks of this imbalance and the true or false intentions of your interlocutors.

By Farid Yandouz


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