The pleasure of paying for what we value

Aside from watching TV or listening to the radio, past generations had to pay for what they consumed. But the internet has given today's young people the idea that content is something you get for free.

Whether it's news, music, YouTube videos or other entertainment, it's all there at your fingertips. Why pay when you don't have to? Getting around paywalls can be very easy.

Pay Wall

My answer is that paying is a pleasure if I value the product that I am purchasing. I am honouring the producer of the product because I believe they are worthy of my vote of confidence.

This applies not only to what we get on the internet but to all goods and services. About 15 years ago I remember telling a friend that I had just bought hair clippers and would never again need to pay the barber for a haircut.

She looked dismayed and worried that I would be hurting my barber financially and also denying myself the human interaction that comes from paying for personal service.

After a few years, I did go back to the barber and discovered that handing over my cash to him was not so painful after all. In fact it was a pleasure to pay for a job well done.

That sense of pleasure in paying for a service that I value is something that remains with me.

I feel good when I pay my annual subscription for The Saturday Paper because I like their journalism. But I have mixed feelings when I pay Fairfax for the Sydney Morning Herald because their management has made so many decisions that I've felt have devalued journalism.

I pay for the New York Times but I wouldn't pay for The Australian or the Wall Street Journal.

When I am registering for a free service on the internet and they ask permission to access my usage statistics so they can improve their product, I think about it. If I like the company and the product, I say yes, sometimes with pleasure. Giving them access to my data is one way of paying for the service.

There are companies I don't particularly like or trust, such as Google. Their services are free, but often I will prefer to pay for an alternative, especially if they're a small business with personal service. That's why I pay $US5 per month to a little known company called Posthaven, for the blog platform I use in preference to Google's free Blogger.

The pleasure of paying for things we value presumes one thing. That we have the money to pay.

It is true that all of us have some money and we can and need to cut our cloth to suit our budget. But the fact remains that the generation of young people who don't want to pay for content online often find it difficult to pay because they don't have the secure employment we took for granted.

The fragmentation of our attention since 1983

I recall attending a late afternoon history lecture in one of the large theatres at Melbourne University. It was 1983 and the lecturer Dr Donna Merwick interrupted her delivery and glared at a student sitting in one of the tiered rows towards the back of the room.

He was indiscreetly holding up and reading the afternoon broadsheet newspaper The Herald while listening to her lecture in the background. She asked him for his undivided attention and quickly got it.

In 2010 I was doing sessional teaching at Sydney University and faced a similar, but by then impossible, battle for the undivided attention of my students.

Most of them had their laptops open, ostensibly taking notes. But it was obvious that they were listening to me in the background while focusing on whatever online activities they would be engaged in if they were somewhere other than in this room attending a compulsory class.

Short of having mirrors installed on the wall behind them, there was not a lot that I could do about it. And in any case, it was the age of multitasking, and it had become normal for anybody - not just students - to focus their attention on several activities at any given time. What was regarded as insolence in 1983 had become de rigeur by 2010.

I am thinking about divided attention in the context of hyperlinks on web pages. Earlier this week I wrote a piece that referred to an online article in The Guardian. I linked to that article in my first paragraph. One of my readers told me that he didn't get beyond my first paragraph because he clicked on the link and read the Guardian article instead.

The next day - yesterday - I also referred to an article online. But I didn't link to it, instead including enough information about it to make it easy to Google. The reader suggested that I should have provided a link to the article, but I was unmoved. 

In fact I will isolate myself from the flow of information around the web if I don't provide links. This is because Google rewards links with higher rankings in search results with its increasingly sophisticated search algorithms. This has led to the fragmentation of our attention on an industrial scale. Back in 1983, the idea of linking was more or less confined to footnotes in academic articles. Even with footnotes, it was necessary to go to the trouble of consulting the card or microfiche catalogue in the library before your attention was diverted.

Lack of focus is a major explanation for why governments can no longer do anything substantial. With the release of Keating era Cabinet papers at New Year, we were reminded of Paul Keating's ability to command attention and how this made him able to achieve significant economic and other reform.

Certainly Keating's magnetic personality had a lot to do with it, but the real reason it could be done then and not now is that 1992 was several years before widespread use of the Internet arrived and changed everything.