Is Free a Choice? Anderson, Godin, and Gladwell Debate

Yesterday, Seth Godin countered Malcom Gladwell’s review of Chris Anderson’s Free. Say that three times fast. In it, Godin writes that Gladwell is wrong about his perspective of Free:

The first argument that makes no sense is, “should we want free to be the future?”

Who cares if we want it? It is.

The second argument that makes no sense is, “how will this new business model support the world as we know it today?”

Who cares if it does? It is. It’s happening. The world will change around it, because the world has no choice. I’m sorry if that’s inconvenient, but it’s true.

Having read Gladwell’s piece, he never asks the first question. What Gladwell first questions is if the concept of “free” is indeed a law of the digital economy:

And then there is [Anderson’s] insistence that the relentless downward pressure on prices represents an iron law of the digital economy. Why is it a law? 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? But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

From the start, Godin is working off an assumption that “free” is the future whereas Gladwell views it as a condition imposed by powerful interests. Would Godin support the idea that the future is “free” because those interests will make it so? Based on his definitiveness I would think not.

Unfortunately, Godin doesn’t get the second question right either. Here, Gladwell’s argument was not about “how will this [free] business model support the world as we know it today.” Instead, Galdwell focused on rebutting Anderson’s claim that “free” is the only business model of the digital age:

The only problem is that in the middle of laying out what he sees as the new business model of the digital age Anderson is forced to admit that one of his main case studies, YouTube, “has so far failed to make any money for Google.”

And there’s plenty of other information out there that has chosen to run in the opposite direction from Free. The Times gives away its content on its Web site. But the Wall Street Journal has found that more than a million subscribers are quite happy to pay for the privilege of reading online. Broadcast television—the original practitioner of Free—is struggling. But premium cable, with its stiff monthly charges for specialty content, is doing just fine. Apple may soon make more money selling iPhone downloads (ideas) than it does from the iPhone itself (stuff). The company could one day give away the iPhone to boost downloads; it could give away the downloads to boost iPhone sales; or it could continue to do what it does now, and charge for both. Who knows? The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.

As these paragraphs indicate, Gladwell’s focus is not really about if the principles of Anderson’s Free have merit. For example, Gladwell points to the Times as a company operating by the philosophy of “free.” Rather, from the start, he investigates the absoluteness of “free” and quickly shows by Anderson’s own case study and several other examples, that “free” is not an “iron law.”

The remainder of Godin’s post are all fair points in examining how digital technology is changing the world. Sure, people don’t want to pay for stale news to be delivered to their homes. Yes, a digital world means more people “get to play” because scarcity is not a factor. But those points do not support that “free” will become the only business model of the future.

As Godin notes the irony that he “read Malcolm’s review for free” while Anderson’s “arguments [are read] most cogently by paying for them” it’s equally as ironic that Godin writes, “[o]f course, it’s ironic that sometimes people pay money for my books.” In that sentence, Godin shows that “free” can be a choice. And that’s exactly Gladwell’s point.