What is the meaning of free?

There is a Russian proverb that ‘Only mousetraps have free cheese’ (бесплатный сыр бывает только в мышеловке.) It’s reminiscent of the English saying (though slightly more brutal) ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’.

As I sit here digesting one such ‘free lunch’, I must admit, I do feel somewhat like a trapped mouse.

All the free Number 8s you can eat!

I’d always secretly hoped to have a delayed flight, or a misconnection, and be put up in a hotel at the airline’s expense, with free food, and get to look around a city I hadn’t visited before.

Last night, our plane from Geneva landed in Moscow after boarding for our connecting flight to Tokyo had already closed. Despite being advised to make a mad rush across the airport, we of course didn’t make it.

At the airline desk, we were given vouchers for an unspecified meal at the vaguely defined ‘restaurant’, and were told to get something to eat and come back in two hours’ time for information about our hotel.

We made our way to one establishment that said they accepted the vouchers.

Unfortunately, however, the value of our vouchers would not cover a single item on their menu.

So we left for Burger King, and were informed we could afford Number 8 on the menu – a Crispy Chicken Burger meal.

Time passed slowly, and we returned to the desk, to be asked to sign documents (all in Russian) regarding our accommodation in a ‘capsule hotel’ in the airport. As it turns out, you can’t just enter Russia as an Australian citizen.

After a sleepless night listening to a particularly loud baby’s wails, and an even louder woman’s constant yelling, we fronted up to the desk to receive some more vouchers for breakfast. Searching around we managed to find a restaurant with prices covered by the vouchers only to be told they didn’t accept them, and we should go to the information desk to find out which places did.

I’m sure you can guess what the guy at the desk told us:
‘Burger King’.

And the server of course took one look at the vouchers and said:
‘We have a meal especially for you. Number 8. Crispy Chicken Burger’.

And it was Number 8s again for dinner.

With the surreal feeling that I was stuck in the film Terminal, or perhaps that dystopian immigration control game I’ve played a bit too much of recently, Papers Please, and going to be sentenced to eating nothing but number 8s for the rest of my natural life, I began to appreciate that there is, indeed, almost always a catch with anything ‘free’. As well as reflecting on how extremely fortunate we are to be accommodated in a safe environment with a specific timespan to look forward to. I can’t imagine how torturous it must be to be locked up indefinitely with all personal freedoms restricted.

Free as in Freedom

The word ‘free’, Douglas Harper reminds us, comes from  from the Old English ‘freon, freogan‘ meaning ‘to free, love.’:

The primary sense seems to have been “beloved, friend”; which in some languages, notably Gmc. And Celtic) developed a sense of “free,” perhaps from the terms “beloved” or “friend” being applied to the free members of one’s clan (as opposed to slaves). The sense of “given without cost” is from 1585, from the notion of “free of cost”

For the ‘Google Generation’, Chris Anderson, author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price remarks, the assumption is that everything is ‘free’. And in the digital world, free is almost always a choice – if a company doesn’t offer something free of charge, others will introduce it for them (think of Napster, the Pirate Bay, or less notoriously but operating on largely the same principle without the social collaboration, Google Books).

One of the best and most nuanced explorations of the word ‘free’ I have come across is that of Richard Stallman (His collection of essays Free Software, Free Society is free in every sense of the word, and well worth reading). While originally applied to software, Stallman’s model is useful beyond this context for thinking about the freedoms associated with other resources, such as materials for language learning – something my colleague Teresa MacKinnon and I have written about.

‘Free’ as it is used by Stallman, refers to respect of ‘essential freedoms’,  not necessarily free of charge. In other languages, this distinction is made more clearly – see WikiEducator for a discussion of the difference between ‘gratis’ (meaning without charge, like free beer) and ‘libre’ (meaning a liberty without restrictions, like free speech). In this way, it is possible for something which is free in the ‘libre’ sense (like free software) to be distribute for a fee. Likewise, something which is free in the ‘gratis’ sense (like my free meal) may come with restrictions. Enrichmentality strives to respect your essential freedoms– that’s why it’s open, uses DRM-free formats, is not integrated with social media or advertising platforms, and is free for you to share.

Jello and razor blades

Even though ‘free’ may be associated with free software, music, ebooks, wifi and other digital products, as Anderson points out, the concept of giving something away – but with restrictions or impositions – is nothing new.

Jello, for example, couldn’t afford to give away samples, so they tried the next best thing – giving away free information (in the form of recipes) that was useless without the product. Gillette gave away blades so that people felt obliged to buy the razor they fitted – after all, who wants to waste some free blades? – locking them in to buying more blades once the freebies ran out.

What trap are you walking into?

While the idea of giving away recipes for Jello-based treats or free razor blades might seem quaint, the fact that ‘free cheese only comes in mousetraps’ has perhaps never been more true. In the past, you could receive some free blades and throw them away, donate them to charity, or give them to a friend who already has a Gillette razor and can use them, avoiding the trap of being caught in a perpetual cycle of adding disposable razor blades or jello packets to your shopping list.

In more modern times, simply by registering for a service you are often walking straight into the trap.

When it comes to freebies online, pricing models refer to two kinds of ‘free’ product:

  • Free gifts (100% free of charge or any exchange of value)
  • Products for prospects (where you sign up to a mailing list or similar in exchange for the product)

Of course, this is just how they are referred to in the literature aimed at digital marketers. No company I have seen has ever been so bold as to say ‘download my “free” product for prospects!’

If you’ve ever wondered why websites ask you to provide your address so they can ’email’ you a ‘free gift’, only to receive a link which sends you straight back to the website you were already on, this is why. There is no technical reason they couldn’t just open the download up for everyone – only an economic one – the hope that some percentage of those who sign up will, after being exposed to constant reminders and offers, become paying customers.

Likewise, free to use services like Google and Facebook rely on your data to sell advertising.

‘Free cheese only comes in mousetraps’ is also the title adopted by Madeleine Ellis-Peterson in her thesis on the use of food banks in the UK, which begins with the quote ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’ – Hélder Câmara.

Ellis-Peterson concludes that the entrenchment of food banks represents ‘a style of welfare provision which stigmatises those in poverty, and does little to meet their long-term needs’. In pointing this out, I do not mean to denigrate either those who use food banks or those who volunteer in them. Emergency supplies of food are absolutely crucial in the current system. Rather, as Ellis-Peterson points out, food banks should not have to exist, and certainly should not be relied on by governments to the extent that they are. We need to examine not only the kind of society we have, but the one we want to be in.

When is the last time you gave a real gift?

‘How often does one person give something to another person without expecting something in return?’ asks Dorothy Rowe, the author of The Real Meaning of Money.

‘Not often. As the old Russian proverb goes, ‘Only mousetraps have free cheese.’ Or as we in the West say, ‘There’s no such thing as a free gift.’ The only occasion when a person gives a free gift is when that person feels towards the recipient an emotion which I have described elsewhere, perhaps too romantically, as true love. True love says, ‘I love you because you exist and I wish you well even though that “well” might not include me.’ Not true love says ‘I love you therefore you must do what I want.’

Some time ago I caught an episode of the pop-psychology program Dr. Phil in which he advised making sure that if parents are going to give their children a wedding, they actually give it rather than ransom it. Giving with an expectation of getting something in return, or giving with the expectation of retaining control over what is given, is not really giving – it’s being what Dr. Phil calls a ‘money bully’.

Where’s the mousetrap?

The next time you see something for free, ask whether the entity offering it really loves you. Truly loves you in the way that Dorothy Rowe describes: ‘I love you because you exist and I wish you well even though that “well” might not include me.’

If you suspect that the individual – or the corporation – offering something for free does not truly love you in this way, then start looking for the mousetrap.

PS. Check out the satirical novel I wrote based (in part) on this experience – aptly titled ‘Number Eight Crispy Chicken‘!

When is the last time you truly gave freely?

Have you ever received something for free? Let me know in the comments!

If you enjoy #Enrichmentality please share it!

Today’s featured image is of course one of the (too many!) Number 8 meals I ate in the Moscow Airport.





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