Have We Become Too Cheap for Our Own Good?

On Value and Money in the Digital World

I buy very few apps and subscribe to very few services. For any given app or service that I stumble across, I’ve found that my first question is: is it free? The other day, I caught myself in this very train of thought. I was a bit disgusted.

An entire team of people poured their time and effort into making this. Another team is pouring their time and effort into maintaining it. They’re just asking that the users pay for that. It’s how business has been done since business began being done. So why do I find myself being so damned unwilling to shell out 5 bucks per month to use this software that I’ve already admitted would provide me value?

I’m not a cheap guy. I regularly buy coffee — just black coffee — at a price approaching $4 per cup. I am more than happy to pay a premium for a decent sandwich, or a gourmet salad. I regularly tip 20% at a minimum. So why am I so hesitant to shell out $5 per month for a piece of software that is already part of my workflow?

I’ll tell you why: I’ve been conditioned to be cheap about non-tangible things.

If I can’t touch it, feel it, eat it, drink it, drive it, or any of that, I get a bad case of alligator arms when it comes to shelling out money for it. I get the sense that this is case for many of us in the young gen-x, old millennial cohort. And I understand it.

We grew up in a time when even the most advanced pieces of software came from pieces of tangible stuff. You bought Nintendo cartridges, Microsoft Office came on CDs. You went to the store and looked for a CD, found it, and purchased it — with money. But then the internet became capable of supporting the transfer for software from place to place with little physical evidence that any such transfer took place. It barely takes any time, and a few small icons on the screen indicate that anything has moved from anywhere. It’s all vapor.

Furthermore, there is just a glut of digital stuff. For every song, app, or service that charges a fee, there is either (a) a competing one that is free or (b) a service that allows you to get it for free that isn’t difficult to obtain and learn.

And from where I stand, that’s the crux of the issue. When what I gained is — for all intents and purposes — a vapor of the senses, I still have a hard time assigning value to it. And when there is so much of whatever I’m looking for, so many alternatives, and almost always a free one — I have little incentive to pay any price for something digital. The invisible hand is moving me, and its middle finger is stiffly extended to those doing digital work. Me? I get a bunch of options for free mind-mapping applications. As a consumer, I have little incentive to change how things are.

I know this is not how it should be, but I’m sure people who make apps and try to charge for them know exactly what I mean. Ditto for people who write for money (or try to). For as far as we’ve come, and as much as we’ve innovated, our sense of value seems to be lagging sadly behind.

I’m not sure how to remedy this, but I get the sense that it’s going to have to start with those who have never handled a compact disc, or used a CD-rom drive. This flash-generation will have to smuggle value into the elusive and ever-accelerating transactions for software. They’ll have to then teach us how to do it.

That’s the funny thing about value. Sometimes we have too much faith in ourselves that we’ll realize it when we see it, and act accordingly. But right now, our faith has far outstripped reality. Here’s hoping we find a way to get back in sync.

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