I need to start by acknowledging my vested interest, as a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired Magazine, in celebrating the marketing concept of “Free,” which is, in essence, about profit-making through giveaways, does not worry about the livelihood of people like me. Ideally, in his thinking, basic content will be the thing provided for free, while the delivery modes and add-ons alone—computer hardware, broadband subscriptions, advertising, and so on—bring in the actual revenue. In the tones of the hip youngsters—“Generation Free”—whom he claims will drive the future in a single trajectory, he writes, “Plus, stealing a physical thing deprives someone else of it and costs real money—not so for a digital file.” Since I doubt that (as he claims) I could make up for lost royalties by appearance fees and T-shirt sales, I feel personally annoyed at Anderson’s crusade.
But my broader misgivings are backed up by a number of more objective parties (including Ellen Ruppel Shell in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture), all attesting to the damage done by the Free model. Set out by Anderson in various examples (such as a “free” cell phone with an expensive long-term contract, or a medical-records database given free to doctors but making money through sale of the collected records to third parties), this is a large set of duck blinds built over the actual cost (and also the inherent value) of goods, and has a future no more dynamic than that of sub-prime mortgages—the digital economy has simply not yet hit its own wall of limited resources and unlimited greed on both the producers’ and the consumers’ side.
To venture citing own experience again: When I use the ideologically most vaunted opportunities of “Free,” the public-domain online information services, I can reach out and touch the wall, and more and more often I choose to turn aside from it. Yesterday, after months of Internet-assisted translating of a Roman novel and a day reading Free, I acquired a used hardback thesaurus. I don’t want to use the Web thesauri any more, even though (in this case) I can rely on their facts and don’t have to confirm everything I see in an old-fashioned reference library.
In my old-new paper thesaurus, I can flip to an entry in seconds, whereas through a Web search it can take minutes to reach an entry with a quarter of the scope. This is because I must keep engaging with the providers, who (as Anderson points out) have to extract rent from me in some form in order to pay their ongoing expenses. First I choose a site among many competing ones (some of which change again and again to get my attention, keeping alive my hope that something as simple as a book will finally emerge); then I bypass or get distracted by ads, while being led from page to page instead of directly to the data I need. (This hopping increases the number of hits, so that the statistics look better to advertisers.) Sometimes I dodge come-ons for subscriptions to bizarre enhanced services such as interactive, animated thesaurus entries, and sometimes I am timed out of a temporary search privilege and have to start again on another site.
The great incentive is that I can get through a search and see synonyms listed without spending money. But behind the incentive lurks the fact that, once I buy a thesaurus (either print or CD-electronics in themselves aren’t the problem), I can use it as I like (except to reproduce it for sale), whereas the Internet by its nature uses me. In buying and using the thesaurus, I’m exercising a pretty fair degree of conscious free will; in my engagement with the Internet, I’m manipulated in many of the ways Anderson describes with approval. It was in fact his hubristic glee over how easily digital entrepreneurs exploit me—lining up my time, attention, emotions, convictions, and reasoning like Scrabble tiles to form new marketing codes—that really got my back up.
The loss of freedom—at the hands of those who claim to be giving me more—is where my most important concerns lie: those of a religious believer. Advances in information technology are truly impressive; data storage units did go from room-sized to microscopic, with all of the attendant cost savings and productivity gains. The advances have transformed our lives, often for the better, and the power behind them can be billed as “miraculous,” as the power behind steam and the internal combustion engine was to previous generations.
But the present industrial revolution is a special one, not relying on large machines or raw commodities as much as on data so easily manipulated as to be essentially abstract. This helps the innovators to claim an even greater transcendence for their work.
Anderson must capitalize the word free with intent, and his slogan “Information wants to be free” (originally part of musing about the conflict and counterbalance of market forces, by Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog) steadily personifies the business model and ascribes to it an irresistible will. Anderson asserts again and again that forces—legal, moral, cultural, and even market forces-arrayed against Free will fail inevitably. The fall of prices is “gravity,” he says, an undeniable part of the nature of things—but also outside of history and commonsense intuition: This new economy will be different from anything before. He then further inflates the language of financial bubbles by spreading far beyond the obviously profiting insiders his predictions of abundance and satisfaction: Free is the One Being with power and goodness enough to merit the surrender of our will and to earn the belief that the true human will is in obedience. We must go where Free takes us, and all will be well. Cautionary tales abound of those who held back and were crushed.
The book, however, unnervingly combines with this quasi-liturgical dramatization the frankness of backstage. (What degree of power would addle a showman so much that he spills the beans about its very sources and sets the audience on its guard, as he did me?) In psychological terms—study after study is cited to show how the methodology was built up—Free is intended to restrict the will and attention more and more to the mere act of choosing, especially among online products and online possibilities for self-expression, through blogs, homemade media, and social-interaction sites. Unlike television, the Internet is interactive and aggressively engaging; it is a more plausibly complete and inclusive world, which can better repress thoughts of choices outside it—especially of choices that, ironically, do cost nothing, such as taking a walk or praying.
Deployers of Free aim for the impression that great value lies in the mere ability to make choices, and only fleeting value in the choices’ content. Brand loyalty, business and professional relationships, and all of the other fusty paraphernalia of stable trade go to pieces—they are supposed to, as they limit choice and the power of media that profit mainly from changed minds. Anderson’s examples show how a sort of overarching authority and permanence is achieved on the very basis of weak content: cat videos, shallow conversations with strangers, and rip-off remixes of pop tunes are deeply unsatisfying; their consumers will come right back for more or something else.
The last will serve the first, but because these are their decisions, the last can be trained to believe that they are first, that a benevolent force has exalted them. In parallel, they can be trained in contempt for anything that could be considered elitest spiritual hierarchy—that is, permanent content, otherwise known as meaning—that could order their lives and bring them real self-sufficiency. This fulfillment can be paradoxical; it is the rush of freedom that Thomas Merton felt for the first time in entering a Trappist monastery. More intuitively, it is the freedom that results from good education, mentoring, reading, and advice, which point out worthless uses of limited life so that we don’t have to try them all.
In the antihierarchical Web style, in which fragments of whim replace sustained thinking, the medium plainly becomes both the message and an advertisement for itself. The book Free itself models the style. Much recent self-help, humor, and other popular nonfiction has the kind of format Anderson favors—boxes, like pop-ups, for short narratives, numbered lists and bulleting, abstractions rendered as diagrams, and other devices to disconnect assertions from each other and strip them of nuance. But it is striking and disturbing to find these modes of presentation in a book that makes serious economic and philosophical claims. Is Anderson only setting out an array of flashy merchandise, and does he not believe in Free himself? I suspected this strongly at the end of the book, with its manic list of ten “Free Rules” (a ten commandments, perchance?).
Number four—to pick one at random—reads, “You can make money from Free. People will pay to save time. People will pay to lower risk. People will pay for things they love. People will pay for status. People will pay if you make them (once they’re hooked). There are countless ways to make money around Free (I list fifty of them at the end of the book). Free opens doors, reaching new consumers. It doesn’t mean you can’t charge some of them.”
The book’s argument, if there was one, has by this point collapsed. In the story—there is sort of one—the heroic band has been made up of companies such as Comcast and Microsoft. The protagonist is Google. How could the ordinary business person or small company, let alone the average consumer, maneuver as these did to take advantage of Free—granted that Free stays planted on a world economy that is splintering, in part, under its weight?
The examples that show the benefits of Free extending downward are the quintessence of cherry-picking, as in a few musicians in the developing world managing to thrive despite massive pirating of their work. In the United States, the music industry at one point fought piracy and won, and was laid waste when it lost in the long term. I don’t find any specific discussion of Napster in the book: A recent important story discrediting the power of Free isn’t worked through in any way, but simply omitted. For their part, the consumer benefits of Free that are touted, such as that teenagers who have little money to spend happily dispose of their abundant time to marketers’ profit, are not going to impress thoughtful adults.
Content, by another description, is community; it is creation that bears other people in mind and through this persuades them to at least consider a new vision of the world. Community is the way an argument has force or a work of art inspires over time and space. The failure of Anderson to engage with his audience even in making the case he is so heavily invested in isn’t a reason to believe that the new technology can’t build community; after all, the technology is only a tool. But it does suggest that openly cynical, strictly materialistic eschatology, in mapping out uses for the Internet or any other innovation, turns back on itself, and that we can go on ahead untroubled.
Sarah Ruden’s translation of The Aeneid was published by Yale University Press earlier this year.