Skip to content

A Steal Might Actually Be a Raw Deal

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

It feels awesome to get a good deal. Unless you realize that it’s a bad deal.

Many of us are happy to pay one price to scarf at Netflix’s unlimited buffet of entertainment. (Many, thankfully, feel the same way about news organizations — including, ahem, The New York Times.)

Membership programs like Amazon Prime let us feel like winners by paying up front to get a string of deliveries and other goodies for no extra charge.

A good product offers us some stuff we like in an easy-to-buy package. A selfish product offers us some stuff a company wants to sell us in an easy-to-buy package. This is an important distinction.

Cable television is a product that might have started as the first, but has morphed into the second. Paying cable TV companies for 500 channels — even if you watched only nine of them — felt marvelous, until millions of American households wondered why they were paying so much for 500 channels when they watched nine. Our sentiment about good value for money can flip in a flash.

I wonder now about our tolerance for the many 21st-century versions of the old cable TV bundle or other product combinations.

Netflix is essentially cable TV, but a collection of individual TV series and movies instead of channels. (It’s far cheaper, which is an important factor.) Apple seems to be trying almost every bundle it can imagine — tossing in its Apple TV Plus streaming video service with new iPhones, or potentially offering two or more Apple digital services at a discounted price. Walmart wants to do Amazon Prime, but from Walmart.

Bundled things like this can be a great deal, or at least we can feel like we’re getting a great deal. But other times, people grow resentful that they’re paying for something they don’t want or need. The key is finding the right products at the right price and for the right reasons.

What happens if that iPhone owner who got a year of Apple TV Plus forgets to turn it off after her free membership ends? Her credit card will keep getting charged into perpetuity. If you pay for that Costco membership and never shop there, you might be angry with yourself and build resentment against Costco, too.

One thing to ask is why companies are selling some bundles but not others.

Apple pundits have been talking for years about the possibility of paying a single monthly price for an iPhone, maybe an add-on product like AirPods headphones, an AppleCare warranty and some digital subscriptions.

This has not happened (yet) even as Apple starts to try every other conceivable bundle. That might be because it costs Apple almost nothing to toss in some video subscriptions, but the company could take a real hit by discounting its physical products.

The challenge for Netflix, Amazon, Apple and the rest is figuring out what collections of products we love — and at what price — and which we’ll grow to hate. There is a fine line between feeling like we’re getting a steal, and feeling like we’re getting ripped off. The cable TV bosses didn’t think that we would resent their bundles, until we did.

If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.

You should read my colleagues’ great article that traced how an observable fact from protests in Portland, Ore. — a few people burned one or possibly two Bibles — became a false narrative that mass numbers of people burned a stack of Bibles and American flags.

My colleagues wrote that the original incident was exaggerated by a Russia-backed news organization, spread on Twitter by someone who didn’t confirm it, and picked up online by news outlets, politicians and commentators who already believed that the protests (and liberals) were out of control.

My question from this — and from my colleague Kevin Roose’s reporting on the QAnon conspiracy — is whether Americans are so divided that we don’t trust anything — and conversely aren’t willing to disbelieve anything. Matthew Rosenberg, one of the reporters on the Portland story, gave me a (discouraging) answer:

Absolutely, and I think we’ve been seeing this phenomenon unfold over years. It’s why nonsense like birtherism or QAnon can take hold. I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t treat what they hear from news organizations or authorities with skepticism. But maybe don’t be so quick to believe that a pricing glitch on Wayfair is evidence of children being trafficked.

We spend a lot of time worrying about interference from Russia, China or Iran. But disinformation needs to have a receptive audience to work. If Americans weren’t so divided — if most political arguments were over a shared set of facts, not wildly conflicting worldviews — it would be hard for a foreign power to meddle.

The Portland Bible burnings illustrate the problem. Sure, Russian state-backed media flagged what was going on and blew it out of proportion. But it was Americans who made it an issue, and used it to score political points. Ultimately, it is us doing this to ourselves.

  • Your tween might be angry about this: A dispute over money and control of app distribution has led to Apple and Google kicking the video game Fortnite out of their app stores. (Already downloaded games should work fine, but they might not soon.) The latest example of app developers’ anger at these tech giants might eventually be resolved in court, but it’s currently mostly a public relations war. Fortnite is winning that war.

  • TikTok had steered clear of trouble for five minutes: Many digital services willfully ignore that many of their users are younger than 13, violating a U.S. child privacy law unless the young users have parental permission to use the sites. My colleagues Raymond Zhong and Sheera Frenkel reported that TikTok may have known and not acted on information that a large share of its U.S. users were likely too young to sign up. That could get TikTok into more hot water, particularly because its predecessor company was previously fined for breaking the child privacy rules.

  • No, no, no, no, Zoom, no, no: “Pretty much every face-lift patient that comes in says: ‘I’ve been doing these Zoom calls and I don’t know what happened but I look terrible.’” Apparently lots of people think the pandemic is a perfect time to surgically tinker with their faces or tummies, my colleague Matt Richtel wrote.

Have you seen those teenage twins hearing a decades-old Phil Collins song for the first time? YOU MUST. And then read my colleague Sandra E. Garcia’s perfect article about the twins and why it’s harder to discover a golden oldie.

We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at

If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.