“Free” Isn’t Worth Reading, But It’s Worth Discussing

by on July 1, 2009 · 19 comments

Image Courtesy of Flickr User Pieter Baert

Image Courtesy of Flickr User Pieter Baert

I’ve been reading many critiques of Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book, Free, after first reading Malcolm Gladwell’s review in The New Yorker.  Gladwell’s piece is fantastic as it illuminates just how wrong Anderson’s central claim really is.  Anderson writes that:

In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win.

Gladwell quickly dismisses this by pointing out that YouTube, one of Anderson’s case studies, is set to lose $500 million next year.  As Gladwell puts it ” If [YouTube] were a bank, it would be eligible for TARP funds.”

But Anderson’s wrong-headedness goes beyond this one case.  Gladwell likens Anderson’s naivete about online distribution to that of Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who Anderson himself quotes in Free.  Straus famously—and as Gladwell points out, quite inaccurately—predicted that “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”  Gladwell points out that just as Strauss failed to realize that fuel was just one of many inputs to the distribution of power, Anderson fails to realize that while the price of transistors may be plummeting at logarithmic rates, other costs associated with digital distribution remain fixed or are increasing.

Anderson’s responds to this critique in a post on Wired.com that fails to answer nearly any of Gladwell’s points, but instead asked why Gladwell felt “threatened” by Anderson.  I doubt he does.

To those who have been regular readers of Wired, all of this should come as no surprise.  The unambiguous mismanagement of Wired.com is the greatest illustration that Anderson doesn’t really understand the web.

Joel Johnson, a former Wired.com employee, has a great post on Boing Boing about this very issue—a post which I discovered by reading a Gawker post entitled “The Case Against Chris Anderson.”  The irony of Johnson’s account of working at Wired.com—and those of several commentors to the post, also former Wired.com employees—is that Anderson, the author of a book on how giving things away for free makes sense, has mismanaged an outlet that should be doing just that.  Comment #7,# 10, #14, #16—a dialogue between Anderson and former Wired.com employees— are particularly worth reading.

But we needn’t rely on the words of disgruntled former employees to show that Anderson doesn’t get the web, take it from Anderson himself.  When speaking about Wired and Wired.com in 2006 Anderson said:

A monthly magazine like ours — which combines long-form journalism, lavish design and high-end photography — really shows paper at its finest. Online, the design is lost, the photos become thumbnails, and you have to click through as many as 16 screens [to read the longer articles].

This betrays just how ignorant Anderson is about the web—he’s squandered the opportunity to make Wired.com one of the most innovative sites on the web today. Gawker’s Nick Douglas responded to this by quipping “In other words, Wired can’t find a decent web designer.”

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Anderson’s attempt to explain away the unattributed Wikipedia quotations in his book not only call into question his ethics, but also his understanding of how to properly work with information found on the web, which in turn calls into question any claim of authority on the subject matter of the book.

Several folks in the blogosphere have pointed out that another quotation which Anderson uses in the book is taken out of context. “Information wants to be free,” as famously spoken by Stewart Brand at the 1984 Hacker Conference, is incomplete.  Stewart’s full statement was:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

It’s that fight between expensive information and nearly free distribution that needs to be explored.  Anderson could have drawn on his own struggles with Wired.com as a way to address this theme.  Instead, we’re left with a book that seems flawed from the outset.

All of this adds up to Free not being worth its very non-free cover price.  However, the blogosphere’s cataloging of the missteps of the author, and the ironic way which they actually illustrate the changing nature of information-based products, makes for very interesting reading indeed.

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