Paying the Door

The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.”

He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. . . . “What I pay you,” he informed it, “is in the nature of a gratuity. I don’t have to pay you.”

“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.”

— Philip K. Dick, Ubik

Pricing is sometimes touted as a universal path to efficiency. Big telecoms providers plan to charge for premium access to specific third-party web sites over their networks; this would entail tracking the priority of all data crossing those networks. Yahoo and AOL want to charge a quarter of a cent per email for guaranteed delivery. Hollywood and the recording industry plan a future in which technology can track everything you do with their content and bill you accordingly.

When these companies argue their new pricing will increase efficiency, we should ask for whom. Ubick‘s apartment-dweller who can’t afford to pay to open his own door illustrates the perversity of markets gone mad. It isn’t efficient to price everything. It isn’t efficient to pay the door – unless you’re the door, that is.