Some thoughts on Free

Wired editor-in-chief and Free author Chris Anderson giving a lecture in Chile last October. Photo by Carito Orellana.

I’ve just finished Chris Anderson’s Free, which is available free on Google Books or as a free audiobook. There has been a debate raging around Anderson’s book for a week or two now. For those wishing to catch up, Eric Etheridge’s NYT Opinionator blog has a great roundup of yaysayers and naysayers, and it’s well worth a look.

Here’s useful tidbit from Malcolm Gladwell’s pointed critique:

There are four strands of argument here: a technological claim (digital infrastructure is effectively Free), a psychological claim (consumers love Free), a procedural claim (Free means never having to make a judgment), and a commercial claim (the market created by the technological Free and the psychological Free can make you a lot of money).

What’s really fun about reading Gladwell’s review is getting a sense of how his mind works. The quote above literally shows him sorting ideas into bins and tagging them as he goes. Fantastic.

Seth Godin responded to Gladwell’s critique in support of Anderson and added a few insights of his own. Worth repeating:

People will pay for content if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people.

Very much agreed with Seth on that.

One of the great things about Anderson’s book is its broad look at the idea of “free.” As an armchair read, it’s hard to get bored by all the fascinating examples and stories Anderson shares. However, this breadth is also a trap, because each invested community will tend to read Free narrowly, complete with its own predispositions, seeing holes in Anderson’s arguments as a result.

I see two faults in it as a book, one minor and one major. Minorly, it feels padded: Anderson repeats himself often. (I assume this is because he feels much of his audience will skim the book, not read it in full in order.) Majorly, it feels overreaching: while it’s true that “free” is a game-changer, Anderson occasionally lapses into what an economist might call “irrational exuberance” over his thesis. I think this happens because Anderson wants to fit Free into a category of business book that we all know well from airports and conferences: the “how to think about, recognize, describe, and potentially monetize a current cultural trend” book. This is, of course, a category owned by Gladwell, which is why it’s so fun to see them locking horns here. With this book, Anderson may have triggered the Tipping Point of Free. We don’t get much intellectual bloodsport like this these days.

But it’s precisely the monetization, in this case, that I take some issue with, along with—narrow reading alert—Anderson’s breezy gloss of Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, which I found thin and occasionally inaccurate. Take, for example, this paragraph:

Hyde focused mainly on gift economies of things—actual objects exchanged. But there has always been a much larger gift economy of deeds, the things we do for each other without charge. As with the attention and reputation economies, this ephemeral gift economy has become explicit and memorable as it moves online.

While it’s true that The Gift opens with the story about Kula shell necklaces that Anderson cites, it quickly moves beyond material gifts and focuses on immaterial gifts like knowledge, teaching, and scientific discovery. Hyde finds attention and reputation economies at play in each of these non-virtual pursuits. He writes,

Scientists who give their ideas to the community receive recognition and status in return. […] But there is little recognition or status to be earned from writing a textbook for money. […] Because such work brings no group reward, it makes sense that it would earn a different sort of renumeration, cash. “Unlike recognition, cash can be used outside a community of pure science,” [University of Michigan sociologist Warren] Hagstrom points out. Cash is a medium of foreign exchange, as it were, because unlike a gift (and unlike status) it does not lose value when it moves beyond the boundary of the community. By the same token, as Hagstrom comments elsewhere, “one reason why the publication of texts tends to be a despised form of scientific communication [is that] the textbook author appropriates community property for his personal profit.”

This would normally be the point in the review where I obligingly share with the reader that portions of Anderson’s book were mistakenly plagarized from Wikipedia. Anderson has already apologized for what I think was an honest mistake, and he’s corrected the errors for subsequent editions, but the fact that it happened only underscores Hyde’s rightness about economies of prestige and Free's outsider, textbook-level status as a result. Its aspiration is less to last longer than to matter now. Free may not be what Hyde calls “an enduring work of art,” but it will certainly fetch a hell of a lot of speaking gigs for Anderson.

This is not so much a way of saying “buyer beware” as “giver, be aware.” In trying to instruct his public on how they might monetize “free,” Anderson clearly prefers one economy to another. But the economy of gifts is different from the economy of goods, and what’s offered as prestige is not always so easily tradeable as cash. Whatever hard knocks Anderson’s thoughtful book has already suffered in the world of ideas, they might be traceable back to the reality that Hyde offers above from The Gift. In this respect, Anderson’s readers would do well to learn as much from their author’s acts as they surely will from his words. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and will recommend it to my beachy, BizLit-reading friends who no doubt might have downloaded it gratis already. The future — especially the digital future — will, I suspect, be more free than not, and, at least according to Anderson, the water’s warm.

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