In the past few weeks something we always knew to be true, but which we preferred to overlook for convenience’s sake, is proving harder to ignore.
The fact is that digital services are not free, they never were and that any entity from Silicon Valley that ever claimed they could be did so only because it suited their agenda or that of someone else.
Think of all the free digital services you use every day without paying a penny: email, travel apps, social media, YouTube, search, Wikipedia.
If you had to pay for all of them, how many would you use?
This revelation is not the result of a crash in the share prices of companies providing free internet services.
Nor is it because a plethora of app companies has run out of financing options for their lossmaking operations.
It has hit us because the fake news scandal has led us to question whether the news and information we have been consuming online for nothing was ever being generated in our interests.
However, the outrage that has followed this realisation — with free services such as Google and Facebook being urged to censor and filter the news — misdiagnoses the situation.
The right diagnosis is this: over the past 20 years we have normalised a digital economy that funds itself either by appealing to the sort of investors who will tolerate long-term cash burn if the ultimate pay-off is monopoly control or by creating business models that profit from morally ambiguous situations.
Where traditional media institutions feared to tread with advertising-funded models because of a belief in editorial responsibility, balance and context, social media platforms — free from any industry codes of conduct — moved right in.
The lines between editorial, advertising, entertainment and political propaganda became entirely blurred in the quest for clicks.
The growing cyber-industrial complex has normalised this further, with cross-subsidisation models that gouge wealthier customer segments for the benefit of non-paying ones referred to euphemistically as ecosystems.
An ecosystem, in case you do not know, is a state of mutual co-dependence between organisms, often where one organism has to submit to the other in order to achieve balance.
None of this is new.
The last time a country normalised a complex web of interdependencies, it was called Gosplan.
Just like today’s internet economy, this Soviet system was based on the idea that a technocratic and scientific central planning process could justly punish some to the benefit of others.
And, like today’s internet economy, it normalised the false idea that scientific progress could cultivate a cornucopia of free resources with no associated costs or losses of freedom.
That fallacy ended abruptly in 1985.
A spate of economic crises, consumer shortages and regional instabilities, including the re-emergence of nationalistic sentiments, revealed that the centralised, cross-subsidised economy of the Soviet Union was bankrupt and had to be reformed.
What followed was the era of perestroika and glasnost, meaning restructuring and openness respectively.
By that point, however, it was too late to save the Soviet system.
Its internal imbalances had become too large.
In 1991, the USSR collapsed under the weight of its own failing economy.
Yet, in the wake of that collapse, something else happened.
The removal of subsidies from those who had grown so hopelessly dependent on the system that they could not fend for themselves outside it led to a backlash.
Many yearned for the return of the old system, no matter the totalitarian cost.
Political freedom, it turned out, was in some cases just too costly.
Imagine what the outcome would be if the digital economy experienced a similar adjustment.