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The price of free downloads — time

business Updated: Jul 11, 2010 23:08 IST
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Back when commissars commanded the Soviet Union’s economy, people would wait for hours in long queues for free bread. Although the bread was free, people paid for it with their time.

To economists, the long lines were a real-life example of the market requirement that payment be made one way or another — in money or in time.

Paying with time rather than money seems just as common on the Web. I jump through a number of hoops nearly every day to find my favourite television shows online, having cut my cable and TiVo DVR service to save about $110 a month. So to avoid paying about $3.60 a day, I instead spend 5 to 10 minutes searching for shows on Hulu.com or Clicker.com.

Is it worth it? I don’t know. I couldn’t find an economist who could tell me exactly how my leisure time should be valued. But I think technology could very well make the Soviet bread line disappear. Do you remember how long it took to do a Google search a dozen years ago, when the service started? Probably not, but Google engineers calculate that their refinements have saved users a billion seconds a day. Using Google to quickly make the calculation, that comes out to about 1,800 lifetimes.

As search becomes faster and smarter, it’s as if the Internet becomes a high-speed moving sidewalk whisking everyone to free loaves of bread. Paying for the search becomes irrelevant as the time spent searching becomes trivial.