Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Call to Grandma

Of course, those of you who know me, or just the way my mind works, must already suspect that this shall not just be about a call to my Grandmother. However, that is the departing point for this train of thought. About a week ago, I used G-mail phone to call my Grandmother's land line, for free! We chatted about my life, and her life, my weather, her weather, and hopes to see each other come next Christmas. When I hung up, I thought it would make a good Facebook status to write, "I just called my Grandma, for free!"

However, that seemed to imply that talking with Grandma was only worthwhile if it could be done for free, which is not the case at all, and I thought that I should explain. When I was a wee lad, our family had this arcane thing called a "long distance plan." To this day I do not understand all the nuances of "long distance plans," but suffice it to say they allowed landlines to call other landlines very far away, but they tended to cost a decent amount of money, and they charged per minute, so long calls to Grandma were expensive, although long calls from Grandma were not for some reason.

Fortunately cell phones came on the scene and long distance became much simpler. In fact, nowadays you can call pretty much anywhere in the US at the same rate, I think. I still don't quite know what that rate is, my ignorance to "long distance plans" translated naturally into an ignorance of telephone plans in general. This is ok though, because my sister is the only member of my immediate family who has successfully made the jump to the cell phone era. I own, and leave on my bedroom floor most of the time, a rather utilitarian cell phone for which I purchase "minutes." I understand what "minutes," are, they are simpler than a plan, and I can use these "minutes" to make or receive calls (or "texts" which I still don't understand and cannot make). The point is that, as usual, calling my Grandmother would be an expense, though one made quite willingly, as I tend to posses more "minutes" than I am likely to need.

So, being able to call my Grandmother for free and spend as long talking to her as I wanted without any notion of any financial repercussions whatsoever broke a fundamental experience in my life dating back to childhood. It isn't that calling Grandma is not worth the expense, it is how foreign to my worldview it is that there is no expense. Which got me thinking about social perceptions of what can be monetized.

For so long my calls to Grandma existed in this world of financial transactions. I give a certain amount of money and receive a specific amount of time to chat with Grandma. But now I can talk with Grandma for free, something I would imagine phone companies are not terribly pleased with. If we continue to have the ability to speak with people throughout the nation for free, I would imagine we will come to expect this ability, developing a sense of entitlement.

While the term is often used in a negative context, I do not believe that entitlement is inherrently bad. As long as we generalize from a selfish personal entitlement, "I ought to have," to a more public sense of entitlement, "we ought to have," I think entitlement is a valuable check against profiteering from basic human necessities. For example, in this nation, there is a widespread, if not uniform, feeling of public entitlement toward things like childhood education, clean water supplies, and certain rights or freedoms. We would be outraged if someone were to tell us that the right to criticize the government cost $50 for a five minute block! We may have to pay if we wish to communicate through a specific medium, radio or television for example, but we are entitled to the right to communicate against the government.

Of course, companies that sell things, such as "long distance plans," do not, in general, look favorably upon widespread feelings of entitlement to the services that they would much rather provide in exchange for money. In fact, sometimes companies attempt to control and market resources previously considered public entitlements, which is one form of privatization. While I am not saying that privatization is uniformly bad, it does take a service out of the realm of "of the people, by the people, and for the people," into the realm of "of the shareholders, by the corporate bureaucracy, for the profit."

Suppose a corporation patented a new method of transporting fresh air from one location to another. They might then attempt to charge the beneficiaries at the destination for the imported fresh air they were breathing. It would not make a difference whether you sought out the imported fresh air or were content with the classic model of air, because air intermixes so freely, undoubtedly you would be consuming the companies patented air, and they would want to charge you for the service. At this point, hopefully, your sense of entitlement is evoking in you a moral outrage that a corporation, let us call it Nomsanto, would introduce a product that was so invasive that it would displace our public entitlement to breathing air. You might even picture the poor citizens who steadfastly refused to pay Nomsanto buying breathing masks and oxygen tanks just so they could be sure they would not consume the precious, patented fresh air.

If we are outraged at Nomsanto's violation of public entitlement to fresh air, ought we not be similarly outraged at the repeated indications that a similarly named company, Monsanto, seems to be attempting to patent entire crops. While I have no problem with Genetically Engineered (GE) foods in general, when a company allegedly goes so far as to sue farmers for patent infringement if patented seed strains appear in their fields due to cross pollination, I think that we should all pay very close attention to the actions of said company. How is this essentially different than being charged for air when "private" air becomes mixed into the public air supply?

One could take this point as a motivation to discuss whether we ought to allow life to be privatized, seeing as it leads to such thorny issues with dire implications for public good. However, I think we have said quite enough for now, especially for a topic that started with a nice call to Grandma. Up to the previous paragraph, this was the thought process that considering posting about my call on Facebook started, I kid you not.

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