There are many positive examples of the something-for-nothing economy…

If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product!” came the quote in a particularly lively meeting. It was offered in response to a question about how Google make their ad revenue. I’d used that quote myself on many occasions but I’d never really bothered to look into who said it first. It’s clearly an acerbic stab at the way tech companies make their money… they sell you. Or more realistically, they sell what you do when you’re not really doing anything in particular. It’s a quote that indirectly implies big brother is watching you. Using you. You always get the raw deal.

This something-for-nothing economy has many positive examples if you know where to look.

We all work hard with our paying clients but just occasionally, a pro bono charity opportunity will pop up. Being slightly cynical, agencies will be thinking of the creative freedom, the opportunity to do something powerful and possibly win an award or two. Conversely, the charity is only thinking of donations. Cold, hard, cash. That difference, right there, asks a tough question of advertising. Is advertising powerful enough to make people spontaneously part with actual cash? It’s a really tough ask and why so many campaigns resort to the “Please donate £3 a month…” call to action. Enter, stage left, the something-for-nothing economy. Companies like Donate your Data have wildly different take on donation. They use a Chrome browser plugin that sells your anonymised, live browsing activity to market research companies. They’d love to have the sorts of insights that previously only the likes of Google had access to. You do nothing different, but a charity somewhere is getting paid in tiny micro payments because of you. We’re not talking massive amounts but £15 a year is not to be sniffed at. They’re creating money out of nothing.

Let’s gloss over the massive something-for-nothing paradigm shift that ‘free’ solar power and local domestic electricity battery storage will unleash on the power industry, but instead, focus on tiny devices that can power themselves from left over wifi energy. Tiny WISP (Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform) devices can recover radio waves from thin air and convert them back into useful electricity. Great for home or environmental sensors that, in theory, last for ever.

Then there’s Bitwalking. We all know Google, Apple et al are tracking our physical movements but Bitwalking makes it a proactively rewarding choice. Just walk around and you get paid in digital currency. Initially aimed at developing countries, it’s underlying economy sounds like a philanthropic act but is in fact, gaining huge insight into the daily movements in emerging markets. It also kick-starts their local digital economy by attracting local businesses to sign up so that users can redeem the digital points. Everyone wins except, potentially privacy.

Image source: Campaign I also love the story of Dutch cycle manufacturer VanMoof who reduced damage to their bikes while in transit simply by printing a flat screen TV on the box. Couriers assumed it was a TV so treated it with more care. VanMoof reduced the rate of damaged goods by 70% to 80%.

I also love the story of Dutch cycle manufacturer VanMoof who reduced damage to their bikes while in transit simply by printing a flat screen TV on the box. Couriers assumed it was a TV so treated it with more care. VanMoof reduced the rate of damaged goods by 70% to 80%.

You can even make millions from seemingly simple changes in behaviour that affect no one. In Singapore, it turns out a cab company’s fleet of blue taxis get crashed into more than their yellow ones. Their blue taxis therefore spend more time in the workshop getting repaired, less time earning money and incur more insurance pay-outs. A recent study concluded that if, every time they replaced a blue taxi, they ordered a yellow one, it would save £1.10 million a year… for nothing.

One last example, those annoying Capcha security codes. They may be frustrating but they are also one of my favourite examples of the something-for-nothing economy. You know the format, a couple of wiggly words, maybe numbers and they look like they were stolen from a low-res photo or from a sketchy document scan. That’s because that’s exactly where they came from. What you’re doing is helping Google translate its vast archive of scanned paper documents or confirm where the house numbers are on Google Maps. It’s also how Duolingo manage to provide their amazing language learning app for free. Yep, those tests at the end of each lesson… you’re helping translate text for their paying clients. Our nothing become their something.

The ‘new tech’ examples keep coming. But it’s really not new. That quote in the first sentence? Turns out it was pretty much taken from artist Richard Serra in a 1973 interview about TV advertising. “You are the end product delivered en masse to the advertiser. You are the product”.

The reason I knew that was because I Googled it just now and found it in… a transcribed Google archive document that had been translated for free, by us, for nothing. How perfectly ironic.

Dino Burbidge

About Dino Burbidge

I know enough about most things to be dangerous. Currently Director of Innovation and Technology at WCRS.

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