Free free, set them free (pt I)

16 08 2009

This is not a book review of Chris Anderson’s Free.

Mainly because I do not want to pay for Free, but, given what I’ve heard him say repeatedly on various radio talk shows, I’m not at all sure I want to read it.

That said, I’m an academic, and what’s a Ph.D. for if not opining on something about which I know little?

Anderson’s basic argument is that technological innovation has reached the point of near-vanishing costs, such that information (in a variety of forms) is, essentially, free.

In the book excerpt available at Scribd, Anderson notes the early adventures of those who would sell Jell-O and Gillette razor blades. They couldn’t, in fact, sell the products, so they gave them or something associated with them away for free or at a steep discount:

Thus was born one of the most powerful marketing tools of the twentieth century: giving away one thing to create demand for another.

The key, for Anderson, is not that the freebies were used to entice people to pay, but that they were, in fact, free. Thus, in the brave new millennium, free takes its rightful place at center stage:

This new form of Free is based not on the economics of bits, not atoms. It is a unique quality of the digital age that once something becomes software, it inevitably becomes free—in cost, certainly, and often in price. . . . The twentieth century was primarily an atoms economy. The twenty-first century will be equally a bits economy. Anything free in the atoms economy must be paid for by something else, which is why so much traditional free feels like bait and switch—it’s you paying, one way or the other. But free in the bits economy can be really free, with money often taken out of the equation altogether.

Sounds good; too bad he’s wrong.

You see, Anderson isn’t really arguing that all information will be free—just that you, the consumer, won’t have to pay for it. While that might seem to be free, it’s actually freeloading. Because you’re freeloading off advertising (i.e., information paid for by, say, a corporation), this is unlikely to offend anyone’s (be they from the left or the right) sensibilities. And since the advertiser knows that she’s paying for you to look [for free], she’s not offended, either; in fact, she’s counting on you to look.

Win-win, right? Hell, I watch shows on Hulu (finally caught the last few episodes of Battlestar Galactica last night), and have no problem with the few ads which pop up at the beginning or in the midst of the shows. I can watch or look away or get up to grab a beer or popsicle. Whatever. They pay, I play.

But is this sustainable? Maybe. But if Hulu or the producers which supply it with content can’t make money from it, it’ll go away. I may not pay, but damned well somebody has to.

Malcolm Gladwell has already written a much-cited & -linked takedown of Anderson’s argument, noting

Free is just another price, and prices are set by individual actors, in accordance with the aggregated particulars of marketplace power. “Information wants to be free,” Anderson tells us, “in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill.” But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas paper to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?

(I’m not much of a fan of Gladwell’s—his m.o. is to take note of a particular behavior or set of behaviors in a specific context, then generalize this behavior beyond all context and, often, reason—but perhaps his glibness is a perfect match for Anderson’s own shallowness.)

But let’s say that Anderson deals with all this in his book, and is able to delineate how this model is qualitatively different from, as opposed to a simple iteration of, the old (twentieth century! atoms-based!) model.

And this is where I want to stick the knife in: into that alleged gap between the atoms (material) and the bits (information). For one, as Gladwell so ably points out, bits rely on atoms:

“The more products are made of ideas, rather than stuff, the faster they can get cheap,” [Anderson] writes, and we know what’s coming next: “However, this is not limited to digital products.” Just look at the pharmaceutical industry, he says. Genetic engineering means that drug development is poised to follow the same learning curve of the digital world, to “accelerate in performance while it drops in price.” But, like Strauss [who thought electricity would someday be ‘too cheap to meter], he’s forgotten about the plants and the power lines. The expensive part of making drugs has never been what happens in the laboratory. It’s what happens after the laboratory, like the clinical testing, which can take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hulu may provide free-for-me viewings of Buffy, but it relies on my having purchased a computer, reliable electricity (which in turn relies upon coal, nuclear, or hydro energy, delivered through cables, etc.), and decent broadband services. None of which are free.

Next: capitalism! labor theory! cupcakes!

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