Free Lunch? Surely Somebody Has To Pay…?

It’s a funny thing, telling people you have a blog in which you’re attempting to write regularly.  I mentioned it to a friend a while ago, and she asked if I were making any money from it.  ‘Well, no,’ I admitted.  ‘But I’m trying to use it as a platform to write nonfiction stuff, you know.  Social commentary, philosophy. That kind of thing.’

I wanted a place where I could do some writing that was a bit more ‘serious’ than just the general blather with which I fill my livejournal, and to perhaps expand my horizons a bit.  And I’ll admit, I wanted a place where, if I were to apply for a writing position somewhere, I could point my potential employer, as examples of the kinds of writing I like to do.  I have some friends who have done just that, and who now have regular appearances on Huffington Post and in other well-known internet publications.  They have reached a decent level of internet success, and I’m proud of them — both for  their good writing, because they are consistently really good, and for their commitment to promoting themselves, while parenting fulltime or working fulltime or doing some of each.  And I think it is really very cool that they are getting the recognition they deserve.

But… like me and my little page of essays here, they’re not earning any money from it, either.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think it should always be about the money.  I do write for the pleasure of it, I write because I have something to say, and I want to have a conversation about it, and because I want to get better at expressing myself.  However, I’ve not ruled out wanting to also earn money by writing.  And despite what my spambot-followers would have me believe, I think it’s probably a lot more difficult than they make it appear.  Then it occurred to me the other day, that one of the reasons for this might be the way we access information these days.

How do you pay someone for her writing, when all the readers want to have it for free?

We are so used to getting everything for free these days (and I’m not even talking about piracy, here) from news to entertainment and everything in between.  One of the amazing things about the internet — possibly THE most amazing thing — is its accessibility, and there is no way I would want that to change.  However, if writers want to make an income, regardless of how small it is, then the sites on which their work appears need to be able to make money, too.  And I don’t know how we will turn around an internet public which is used to reading everything for free, and convince them that now they need to pay.  Because I can pretty much guarantee that people are just not going to pay, and are going to the go somewhere, where they can continue to read for free.  What’s silly, is that articles on the internet can see an incredible amount of traffic, with thousands of views apiece.  If each reader were only paying a few cents per view, it would still add up to a small sum — even just a thousand views would be around $30.  Granted, you’re not exactly going to be able to quit your dayjob on that amount of cash.  But it’s something.

I know there are already some sites which pay a small fee to their casual or freelance writers, but it seems that many of the more prestigious sites simply offer exposure rather than remuneration.  Of course, the exposure is brilliant to have, and writers absolutely need it.  However, it shouldn’t be the only thing they offer.  And it seems like they’ve convinced at least some of their contributors that internet stardom and the promise of thousands or even millions of readers is enough.  Is it?  Other writers certainly don’t think so, as Nate Thayer’s exchange with the global editor at The Atlantic illustrates, and The Atlantic took some criticism because of it.  Of course, in the vastness that is the world of online and paper publications, getting one’s name out there is hard, and even if the Nate Thayers of the world stand up and demand payment, there will be many others who are willing to take the exposure and accept the lack of remuneration.

Here’s the thing: it’s not all the fault of the sites that don’t pay.  It’s also the fault of the writers who write for them, and the readers who read their work.

We as writers are to blame, because we need to demand payment for our work.  I understand that heady feeling — really, I do! — when a piece is accepted for publication, and perhaps I’m alone (I’m not) in that I do spend time, very precious time, writing, then editing, then rewriting my work.  Surely that time is worth something other than simply recognition — especially if the publication is for-profit, which will be generating profits from your work?  To allow publishers to offer exposure is to agree that your work is not worth payment.  And we do deserve to be paid!  We’re doing a job, after all.

We as readers must also share some of the responsibility, though. For too long we have been demanding ‘free’.  We read articles for free, we listen to music for free, we watch TV for free.  As consumers of culture, we do so with seemingly scant regard of the fact that somebody has to create it, and if they’re creating it for free, it means it’s cutting into the time where they could be doing income-generating work.  In the scheme of things, unless writers start demanding payment for their work, this won’t matter, because there will always be free writing to read.  But for goodness’ sake, people pay for the Daily Mail, the Bild, the Daily Telegraph and any number of other tabloid newspapers.  They pay money for that!  And yet, they won’t pay money for meticulously researched, painstakingly edited, carefully crafted articles, essays and fiction.

So how do we change the status quo?  Leaving aside the fact that there are always going to be people who cheat and get their culture for free anyway, how can we persuade the average internet user that we need them to pay writers, so that writers can earn money from their work?  Well, first we insist that writers be paid, either from the end-user, or from the website where their work appears.  We change the expectation from ‘it should be free’ to ‘it should be paid for’.  And secondly, we make it worth their while.  We create easy ways to pay — how about a once-yearly, or even once-monthly fee tied in in with your ISP bill?  It doesn’t have to be much.  In the UK, yearly payment of a TV licence supports their BBC and means that those channels are advertisement free.  Would something similar be possible for online content?  Certainly, the internet is a far more complicated medium than television, and I’m not even sure what it would entail.  But whatever it takes, a dialogue needs to begin.  We need to consider what we’re demanding of those who create art.  Recognition of the work one produces is a great start — it is such a wonderful feeling when something is shared and complimented.  But having something go viral on the internet for a few days is not really recognition.  It’s a flash in the pan, and it rarely produces tangible results for the person or the writing involved.  We need for people to be rewarded for the time they’re taking to produce good work.  Do we still have the attention span for that, I wonder, or are we all just caught up, waiting for the next thing (and for it to be free)?

It’s not to say that people couldn’t still write in their blogs for others to read for free, or that there can’t be collectives and online publications which offer free work to view and consume.  It’s not that people would suddenly be able to afford early retirement, or buy a mansion.  It’s not even that money should be the ultimate goal, when sitting down to write — in fact, it shouldn’t be!  It’s just that instead of it being the norm that someone’s work is available for free, it might be the exception.  And that might mean that we value it, and the process taken to create it, a little more.

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Fracking: A Dialogue.

(Green) I was walking down by the lake the other day, as I had not been there for some time, and I wished to see how it was faring.

(Grey) And how did you find it?

I found it lonely. The beauty that surrounded it was gone, there was no birdsong, no frogs. The wildlife had all but vanished from the area. It was like visiting a foreign place.

— There is a festival tonight, said Purple, in honour of the new year.  We should go.  There will be fireworks, and dancing and music.

That is a fine idea.  But first, let us eat.

And so we went to the house of Purple, and there were many others, Orange, and Yellow, and Pink, and Blue, and Blue sat with me, and we talked, and he said to me, ‘I noticed that you were at the market the other day.  What was it you and the others were shouting about?’

(Green) Well, I am surprised you ask.

(Blue) You are not possibly still insistent upon protesting this.  We have talked about it at length, and nobody can deny that it is important for our society to have a reliable source of energy — a source that is, as yet, untapped, simply waiting for us to release it to the people.

(Green) And therein lies the problem.  You say that we have talked about it at length, and then jump swiftly into claims that you know I cannot refute: namely, that we need energy and that the reserves are the ideal solution.  You use words such as ‘people’ and ‘untapped’ to imply that it is our right to take such a resource, without considering whether there are other consequences in doing so.

(Blue) And you would deny us that right?  Who has the right to it, then?  Some supernatural power?  Some mystical earth-spirit?

(Green)  Here, you mock me.  Is it not possible to be concerned for the impact of such an operation, without it bearing any relation to spirits?  And why should you bring that up, when I did not even mention it?  You wish, perhaps, to discredit my argument, by showing that my brethren may find solace in gods and goddesses, whereas yours have only interest in science.

(Blue) Is that not true?  Several of your ilk believe in a mystical being.

(Green) Whether or not that is true, it does not prevent us from also having concern for the planet.  There are other reasons to contradict what you are saying — the health of all involved, concern for other beings than humans, conservation of the wilderness, … and none is more important than the other, rather, each has a vital part to play, which cannot be dismissed so easily.  Yet, I digress, and you know this.  My argument was, that you are moving from a point on which we both agree, to a conclusion which is by no means self-evident or logical.  Simply stating that there is something we need, and then concluding that your method is how to achieve it, is but a fallacious argument.

(Blue) How, then?  Our society grows, flourishes, and you would have us live as cave-dwellers?  

(Green)  Again, it pains me to hear what you are saying.  I know that you are learned, and perhaps this is what perturbs me most: that you would pretend to ignore any other solutions than that which you are proposing.  When you claim we would return to uncivilised society, you are fear-mongering, so that those who listen feel they must agree to all your reasons, lest they give up their modern conveniences.  But you do not allow that there may be other ways — the sun, the wind.  I hesitate to suggest that this is because there is so little financial gain for you?

(Blue) But such cynicism!  There are a myriad of examples of how we give back to society.

(Green)  Cynical I may be, but I would argue that these examples are mere token gifts, in order to further your cause.

(Blue)  You wound me, with such distrust.  Have we not agreed that we desire the same ends?

(Green)  Agreed.  We both desire that society would have the resources it requires, but the means to such ends, that is where our desires diverge.  That you would not only poison our waters, but also lie about doing so?  That is where my disdain for you is deepest.

(Blue) These accusations are unfounded.  Where is your evidence?  You accuse me of false conclusions, and yet you have nothing to reinforce your own?

(Green) It is true that I have little proof, and I cannot help but believe it is your deception which prevents me from gaining it.  Yes, I realise: yet another unfounded accusation.  But you insist on using money, fear, to promote your business.  Surely, if there were nothing to fear from the way in which you conduct it, that would not be necessary.

(Blue) You believe we use tactics.  As we do.  This is a business, after all.  We succeed in it, we deliver on promises.  The people demand a resource.  We supply it.  That is all that needs to be said on the matter.  How could you deny us this opportunity to supply a demand?

(Green) For the reasons I have mentioned before: that it will be a short-lived resource, and it does not guarantee supply for our future.  That it is damaging, and you are paying to hide this.  You argue that there are those among us who believe in gods and so must be dismissed, you argue that our claims about poison and destruction are invalid, you disagree with our evidence because we cannot prove that your work is the cause of it.  Yet I put it to you, that such arguments are based on lies.

(Blue) I will not defend myself against this, nor should I need to.  So far, commerce has spoken in our favour, and if you would wish to prevent us from harvesting this resource, then it is commerce to which you must appeal.

(Green) Perhaps the truest words you have spoken all evening, my friend.  I do, truly, believe that I can celebrate the ethical validity of my position, yet as much as it saddens me to concede, it is money, not morals, which will convince those who dictate the machinations of our world.  However, I can only appeal to those who would give them power.  Surely, in the absence of the gold you possess, the threat of removing our leaders from power would be persuasive?

(Blue) Ha, you show too much trust.  We represent the way it has always been.  For you to change it, requires more people than you yet have, more voices, from a louder public.

(Green) This has been done before.  We have managed before.

(Blue) That was in different times.

(Green) The times are not so different, neither the people.  It can be done.  I sense your scepticism, but I have powerful hope.  Change is indeed a strong and powerful promise, and time will tell my story.

(Blue) With such rhetoric, you may win over some.  But still: it is money, and only money, which will lend success to your cause.  Time may tell your story, but the present belongs to us. Let me lend you advice: you must appeal to these elements within our society, you must gain the ear of the rich and the powerful with messages about riches and power.  Then, the benefits of which you speak will follow.  

(Green) That is, if the greed for riches and power do not corrupt us first.  It grieves me that our appeals to the better natures of those who wield decisions, must come in the guise of money.

(Blue) That is the way of the world.

(Green) Still, I hold on to hope.

________________

OK, so it’s not really a Socratic dialogue!  There are too few characters, and I’ve written it more like a script, because I worried that it would be otherwise too difficult to follow.  But the point is, one of the problems, when discussing environmental issues, is that they tend to be emotive, and that fits poorly with the economic model by which we seem to run our countries and our lives.  It is often not considered ‘worth’ saving a species or an area, because we are not getting any net profit from it.  Such intangible concepts as diversity for the sake of diversity, or the importance of green areas on our mental health, don’t have direct economic consequences.  This makes it difficult for the economist (or the company spokesperson or the accountant) and the environmentalist, to come together in dialogue.  But here, I force them together!  Yay for philosophy!  If Socrates and Plato would have wanted anything, I’m sure they would want us to use interrogative thought and introspection and discussion, to try to find common ground, and work around the problems of economic growth versus environmental conservation.  

(I was trying to come up with some Greek-sounding names to give to the voices in this, but my Greek is… non-existent!  And they were awful!  So I’ve just given them colours.  It makes it easier to tell who’s who, anyway, and avoids gender and cultural bias to boot.)

Our federal elections are in a few weeks’ time.  I’d love a debate about fracking, the future of our energy supply, and how much money is going to be invested in alternative energy sources so that we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels.  But that’s unlikely to happen.  No doubt, once we can light our water on fire, people may start paying attention.  Wouldn’t it be a shame if we had to wait for that?

Knowledge, Ignorance, and the All-Elusive Bliss.

I was at my GP recently for a routine exam, and mentioned that I needed a new prescription for my birth control pill.  It’s been a while since I was on this pill due to pregnancies and breastfeeding.  She asked me if I could remember the name of the brand, and I told her.  She then asked if I smoke (no) and if I ever get migraines.

‘Now that you mention it,’ I said, ‘I do sometimes get them now.  I think it’s when I’m really, really tired.  I lose vision and get really nauseous.’

‘Ah,’ she said.

It turns out, since I was on this medication last, they’ve discovered there might be a link between women who get migraines and also take this pill, and strokes.  STROKES.  Especially if they’re under 45.  Which I am.

I would quite like to not have a stroke.

I got home and did some quick checking on the internet (what do you know? My doctor knows what she’s talking about!) and then I was reading about strokes in general, and discovered that there is a link — whether or not it is causal, seems unclear — between long term, sustained stress, and strokes.  And that made me laugh a bit, because there is a fair bit of that kind of information about.  You know the kind of articles I mean.  The ones that tell you that depressed people are more likely to die younger than those without depression.  And the ones that tell you that insomniacs are more likely to have heart failure.  And when I read those articles, I think, how is this good information to have?  If you’re depressed, how is it good to know that you might have a shorter lifespan?  Isn’t that going to make you even more depressed?  And if you can’t sleep, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to help, wondering if your lack of sleep is a contributing factor to a possible heart attack in later life. And if you’re pregnant? There are now lists of things you have worry about and consider to keep your baby safe. Oh, and by the way, apparently if your grandmother smoked while she was pregnant with your mother, it could be the cause of your unborn child’s asthma.  Awesome.

 

It’s not as if I would like to go back to the age of superstition and luck, when you could die from an infected cut, or when there was no treatment for cancer.  But I do wonder if we have just a bit too much information, nowadays, about our bodies and potential health problems.  How much is too much knowledge?  How much do we really need to know?  We talk about knowledge being power, but is it really empowering, to know about all the potential risks that might just be risks, that are based on statistics with many variables?  I can’t help wondering if it’s because drug manufacturers and health professionals are worried about being sued, if they don’t disclose every single little thing which might go wrong with you later in life.  Maybe we’ve done this to ourselves?  We’ve probed and delved so deeply into the minefield of health research, and we demand to hear every detail, every result of every study, just so we’re up to date with the latest in medical science.  The question is: what are we even hoping to do with this knowledge?

 

In the past, information about our health would be on a need-to-know basis. The doctor would tell you what tests were required, what your prognosis was, and you, the patient, were expected to be patient. You took for granted that their advice was right for you. You didn’t get a second opinion — why would you need one?  And you trusted that everything would be OK, and left your health in the hands of those who knew better.

Of course, people who work in the health sector are people, and they make mistakes and get diagnoses wrong, and miss symptoms. Hopefully not often, but it happens.  So there’s a reason why we started asking ‘what’s that test really for?’ and ‘are you sure it’s…’ and began to demand more information about our health.  And this was a good thing.  If we have more information about our bodies, it could mean that we take better care of them, make better choices.  It might mean we’re sharing responsibility for our health with our caregivers, rather than assuming that they’re always going to have the (right) answers, and placing them on a pedestal, from which they’re sure to fall.

The problem is, in demanding access to all this knowledge, we’ve opened the floodgates, and I’m not sure we’re mentally prepared for all the information that’s flowing very quickly in our direction.  

Being able to access the kinds of knowledge that was previously only available to professionals has its drawbacks.  While it’s great to have more information, we may not necessarily have the experience or training to interpret it, so it becomes confusing and overwhelming.  Reports in the media often select the most shocking or sensational aspects of a study, and focus on them, rather than presenting them in a more measured way.  Of course they do, because the authors want the reports to be read, or watched, or listened to.  But in doing so, they’re not necessarily contributing to a better understanding about our health.  If anything, they’re exacerbating the problem.

I wouldn’t like to argue that ignorance is bliss, but I’m not convinced that omniscience is bliss either.  To that end, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands.  Oh, don’t worry — I’m still going to ask my doctor for advice when I need it, and go for checkups.  I’ll still take responsibility for the fact that it’s my body, and that I know it best.  And I’ll still do research on my own, if I think it’s going to be useful.  But in terms of all the other stuff, I intend to blithely ignore it, and just assume that I am going to live a long and healthy life.  Because most of this information still really should be on a need-to-know basis, when you think about it.

And I most certainly do not need to know.

 

 

Poverty and Shame.

The Handsome Sidekick and I were doing some catch up shopping on our childfree day, and as we were talking about something else, I caught the tail-end of an announcement ‘… this bargain won’t last long, so head over to the Fresh Produce Department now.’  Bargain?  I thought.  Guess I’ll check it out!

It turned out they were doing their $3 bags. You get given a shopping bag — the regular grey recycled ones — and there are a few crates of fruit and vegetables on a large storeroom trolley.  Fill up the bag with as much as it can hold, with whatever you want from the crates, and all you’ll pay is $3.  It’s a win-win-win: the store gets rid of (and paid for) fresh produce which is past its best, the food gets used rather than thrown into landfill, and the customer gets a bargain.  And there are bargains to be had.  I ended up with a pear, eight slightly grubby potatoes, three kilograms of bananas, six lemons and a large head of lettuce.  The bananas alone would have cost me around $12 — and they’re overripe which makes them perfect for muffins, cakes and smoothies.

So if it’s win-win-win, why did I feel so scummy, while other shoppers stared at me as I rummaged through the crates to find what I wanted?  It’s not like I was the only customer taking advantage of this, but I did have the sensation that what I was doing was not a desirable thing to do.  Surely, I should be buying my fresh produce for full price?  Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?  If you get it cheap, it means you’re cheap.  Or poor.  Either way, it’s not good.

I turned this around in my mind for most of the day.  I mean, don’t get me wrong: I was very pleased with my food!  And I felt as if I’d done a good thing for our budget and for the planet.  But I did wonder about this general idea of asking for discounts, of getting things cheaper, of using second-hand or second-best.  Most of the furniture we own was new for someone else before we got it.  As was our car, as were our clothes, as was our house.

Sitting down with the Handsome Sidekick that evening, I asked, ‘Why is it shameful, to be poor?’

We talked about where this came from — is it a remnant of a more class-based society (not that we’re so classless now, despite what people might like to believe!), or it is it more due to the consumerist culture in which we find ourselves?  Why is it so embarrassing to admit that you can’t afford something?

Several years ago, I was working at a call centre.  Leaving aside the fact that it was a depressing, soul-destroying job (the people I worked with were lovely, just the job was shocking; I’m sure others can relate!), we were paid a pretty modest wage, and to add insult to injury, we were paid monthly.  You should know that in Australia, most jobs pay fortnightly, and so most people pay their rent or mortgages fortnightly, too.  This usually works out fine, of course.  When you get paid monthly, and just put aside two rent payments out of the paycheck.  But you know how some months have five weeks?  Well, sometimes the rent falls three times within that five weeks.  And that… is quite hard to budget for, especially when you’re a single-income household.

So it was payday, at this job, and I just did not have enough money to get to work.  From memory, I had about five dollars.  I desperately needed the pay to have gone through by the Friday morning, but it wasn’t there, and I couldn’t afford to put fuel in the car.  So I rang work, and told them that I was going to be late.  My car had broken down, I said, and I was going to catch the bus.  Which I did, and I got to work late, and was able to work back an hour and get a lift home with a colleague.

Why didn’t I tell them that we’d had three rent payments that month?  Why was it so shameful that I couldn’t afford to get to work?

Last year’s US election campaign raised some similar issues about poverty and shame — and about what people deserve.  There is a tendency to blame people for their poverty, to demonise them.  The area where we live has a high unemployment rate, and high poverty rate* and I know, when I tell people where I live, that they’re already deciding what kind of person I am.  It’s as if there is some unwritten rule, that people must be poor by their own design.  Surely, if you were more resourceful, you’d have a (better-paid) job?  It’s probably that you just can’t manage your money.  You must like welfare-dependency.  You should just stop smoking/drinking/taking drugs/eating junk food — that’s probably where all your money goes.

It’s these kinds of unspoken assumptions which perpetuate this idea of poverty being shameful.  Since moving from a very affluent area (where people made a whole different set of assumptions about what kind of person I was), I’m a lot more aware about the different aspects of relative poverty which some of us experience in this country.  This has come from both observing others in my community, and from personal experience.  There are so many reasons why people struggle to make ends meet — from family responsibilities, to unexpected and chronic illness, to debts building up and out of control.  And on top of that, there is the shame that you sometimes need to admit that you can’t afford something.  Yet there’s really no shame in that, when you think about it.  Everyone has a budget, and some are larger than others, but we all have to prioritise our expenditure.  It’s hard enough, being poor.  Being ashamed of it just makes it harder.

If only we could remove the stigma from being ‘poor’, and realise that in this developed nation, where we have a comprehensive welfare, education and health system, and where the weather (at least in this part of the country) is generally warm and friendly, that we are, in fact, very, very wealthy!  What does it matter if you buy something new or second-hand?  What does it matter if you buy it at all, as long as you have sufficient to see you through?  

I once read a quotation: ‘There is no shame in being poor, only in acting poorly’, and it has buoyed me up on several occasions where money has been somewhat scarce and we’ve had to really pool all our resources as a family to get through.  My children are well aware that we’re not rich, but I refuse to have them think they’re poor.  If anything, I want them to realise that even if money makes the world go round, it’s a pretty empty world if that’s all you have, and that are plenty of things to be ashamed about, but being poor is not one of them.  What’s more, wherever this notion comes from — whether it’s based on class or capitalism or is simply a way for some people to try and put others down so they can try and justify their own lives — it’s a label other people are using.  I have a clear conscience that I am doing the best I can with the financial resources we have.  I wonder if everyone who looks down on buying the seconds from the fresh produce section can say the same?

 

*I’m talking, of course, about poverty by Western standards.  I can guess that many of these households have potable water on tap, and most basic needs.  That is not to say all of them do, or that life is a breeze when you’re living on welfare.  But it is quite different to being poor in other parts of the world.