A number of years ago, Abraham Pais, the illustrious technical biographer of Albert Einstein wrote in the NYT Review of Books a review of one of Deepak Chopra’s books. I have lost the specific reference to this. But I do recall one of Pais’ metaphors that I think will serve to introduce us to the raging ‘debate’ on Chris Anderson’s new book Free: the future of radical price. Pais said that Chopra’s thesis in his book looked a lot like the following Q&A. “How is Abraham Lincoln like Albert Einstein? Both had beards except that Einstein did not have a beard”. Then Pais went on to say how much he did not like Chopra’s book. I wish I presently had the benefit of actually reading Chris Anderson’s new book, but, of course, that will not stop me from making comments. The book is not currently available to me.
First, let me digress on an ad hominem attack on the key recent principles involved in the loudest Free discussion, Malcolm Gladwell and the author. Why is it that Malcolm has such a remarkable over-abundance of hair on his head (at least in the 2004 TED presentation) and Chris has none? Accordingly, why should Malcolm be arguing for continuing to institutionalize scarcity and Chris for following the mandates of abundance? It seems as though they are not properly outfitted for the sides they are taking in the argument. It also seems to me that these ad hominems represent fairly closely the level and pattern of much of the discussion to date on the serious and important topics of the Free debate.
I found a couple of points helpful to clear up some noise in the discussion.
- Malcolm complains about the free model through the mouth of James Moroney’s complaints about a non-free business deal with Amazon. You may not like Amazon’s offer, but of course, this does represent a business model. Remember the revenue they are talking about splitting is Amazon subscription dollars. Why would the ersatz Malcolm complain about the opportunity to leverage off one of the most compelling information distribution platforms (and future platforms as well!). Further, Does the Dallas Morning News expect to be compensated like the Wall Street Journal? This is, after all, ‘free enterprise' : the Dallas newspaper doesn’t have to take the deal. Let them complain their way out of business. Pray that congress does not somehow intervene in the process (which may, ultimately, be Malcolm’s secret wish and the real intent of putting this story front and center in his review.)
- Malcolm: a common technique to explain ideas is using the analogy. You do it all the time in your writing. I can only guess that Chris’ reference to Lewis Strauss and electrical power distribution is an analogy. Free is mostly a discussion about digital products. Why spend any of our time talking about how the analysis does not apply to the pharmaceutical industry?
- Mark Cuban’s distinction between free price and free distribution does not help. Why should anyone spend money (me on promoting my content or my distributors on me) to give/get ‘exclusive’ rights to free stuff. Maybe if I am Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Mark Cuban, or Chris Anderson. Fast Company, good. Huffingtonpost, not good. I say: copy it. link to it. let it fly around the web. Why put barricades to free stuff? For branding in context? Can I only become a real player if my free stuff is offered by the ‘New Yorker’? Linking, referring to links, referring to references of links is the multiplicative magic of the streaming web. If Mark is saying that you should put some effort as a content provider to pushing your content through selected ‘context providers’, which can amplify your messages, good. If this somehow is meant to be a discussion about an exclusivity business model – it is not useful. That is exactly what is dead in the world of free
- Seth Godin's Malcolm is wrong post gets out of touch with his readership and is focused on intelligentsia-insider jokes about Malcolm never having disagreed with Chris. And to what exactly in Malcolm’s article do Seth’s two comments apply? I cross checked numerous times and couldn’t line up the discussions. Typically, Seth is very good on clarity and transparency. But this time, there seems to be much more at play than meets the eye in the battle among titans. We forgive Seth a little indiscretion for all of the great stuff he has given us for free.
- Malcolm is wrong. Especially about the curious analysis of iPhone business. As my former Greek boss would like to say, “I am not understanding what you are talking about.” Malcolm does not say exactly how does a discussion about Apple lockup of content and platform add up against the Free argument? Are you proposing that Apple has perfected the primary battleground tactic to fight against free? There is a little company in Redmond, WA that knows something about platform coupling. Does anyone doubt the huge impact that Linux and opensource has had on their business? And how much impact it will have in the future?
I do agree, however, with Malcolm’s claims that ‘these guys’ like Chris frequently paint a much too general ‘arc’ over the issues and do not clearly identify the use cases that apply. That’s OK when discussing a law of nature like the pareto distribution (‘long tail’). That’s not OK when discussing a complex, fundamentally-important emerging cultural and business framework. I don’t know how we could possibly have understood Chris’ indirection argument about “paying people to get other people to write” without an explanation of the GeekDad phenomenon, which I have concluded was not in the Free book. My 8th grade English teacher said the 3 most important characteristics of a good and cogent essay were examples, examples, more examples, and then, maybe, an interesting topic.
But what is really surprising about the discourse on Free is that all of the parties don’t seem agree that it is a worthwhile topic of discussion! Huh? Admittedly there are complexities to parse out. Surely, we all sense there is scary fundamental change afoot. For Malcolm to dispose of the entire discussion speaking about “The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about” is downright anti-intellectual. There must be something else happening here for a professional intellectual to make such a claim. Blind irrational terror of the inevitable change? Malcolm’s theses in his review of Free seem to me to be more akin to saying that Chris is not capable of making good arguments, because his is bald. And see, he’s even got the shiny-headed Seth on his side!
‘Scarcity’ and ‘abundance’ are flashy but slippery concepts, used by the mavens to mean many different things in different contexts. Malcolm says that Chris said that mechanisms of judging quality are mere “artifacts of an era of scarcity”. Let’s sort out the important issues here. Seth’s Dip creates scarcity which creates value. Is anyone really saying that scarcity is not an on-going value concept, especially in the abundance of the digital world? Secondly, I cannot imagine that it would be a primary claim in the book that we are somehow exiting an ‘era’ of scarcity. What does ‘era of scarcity’ even mean? Why focus on counting? One, two, three, scarce. 100 million YouTube videos, abundance. What matters are the mechanisms of restriction and openness and the costs behind them rather than simply the absence or abundance of options. Aren’t we really looking at the end of an era of artificially-created scarcity by oligarchies regulating content production and distribution. When everyone becomes a producer, there is significant change in the traditional businesses, which depended on the restrictions to flourish.
The final issue in Malcolm’s statement about Chris’s thesis is that quality is an artifact. I adopt what I think is Malcolm’s sense of ‘artifact’: a smudge on ancient shale stone representing a marginal sea creature that went extinct thousands millennia ago. Can it be a primary claim in Chris’ book that quality is going extinct? But digital content abundantly available can be really good or really crappy. There will always be aggregators (although the mechanics of aggregation will surely change) of quality content, who will push their message within tribal confines. Many communities and products will spring up whose job is exactly to filter (and reduce) abundance by applying principles of quality and relevance to bring value. The important observation is that the days of aggregators imposing their criteria of quality are over. This is part of the story of the death of traditional media. Our job is to find ways not to waste our time with low-quality stuff. And this is exactly the point: quality by my standards is related to value is related to scarcity. The most important scarce thing here is my attention and interest. I really don’t care about the bazillions of videos on YouTube. It is obvious that the TV networks and the Motion Picture industries should care about this abundance outside of their control. Rather, I care that I can get quickly to what I am interested in. We also now see the end of Google’s dominance of search: we have very limited control over the detailed criteria used to produce the large, ordered set of references. Do I really want some occult algorithms based on what businesses have paid Google to influence the choice of what is available for me to have?
The title of Chris’ book is, after all, Free: the future of a radical price. So he is talking about price. Is Chris really saying that quality and value are going to become disconnected from price as is suggested by Malcolm’s review? Won’t quantitative value continue to be related to how much someone will pay for something? What then will be the basis for the pricing of digital things? In a sea of options won’t people be willing to pay for filtered content that we as consumers specify to satisfy our limited attention? Maybe the set of good things I pay zero for will increase dramatically. I agree that there is a shift from price based on some weak definition of ‘inherent value’ of content. For quite some time there has definitely been a shift away from a cost basis for price. However, to suggest that the price of everything digital will drive to zero is specious, because even if much of the underling content is free, I will be happy to pay for access to the right stuff.
Maybe I will understand better the answers to these questions after I have read the book.