Chris Anderson Practices What He Preaches?

Posted: July 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism, Technology | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

WIRED’s Chris Anderson has a new book out, making his case for the “economics of free.” By this he means “free lunch,” but the core of the book is trying to dress up “free lunch” as “free markets.” In the new economy, all goods will be digitized, and as that happens, they will obtain a cost approaching $0. Therefore, all companies will make their money by providing auxiliary services atop their free goods, for, Anderson believes, production costs also approaching $0. [Ex: sell ads on free content site]

Here’s the problem: if consumers love “free” goods so much, what makes Anderson confident they will be willing to pay $>0 for services. Moreover, even if they were willing to pay for services, wouldn’t that willingness be undermined by the knowledge that, if Anderson is to be believed, the services also cost $0 to make? Never mind that there are serious doubts about the $0-cost-ness of digital production and distribution. [Malcolm Gladwell pretty effectively eviscerates the whole argument in the most recent New Yorker]

I have long rolled my eyes at arguments like Anderson’s. The more seriously you think about what “free” really means, the more you are convinced that it’s inherently anti-market, that the Internet leads us to a kind of decentralized socialism. Some tech-evangelists are upfront about this being their true goal, and even if I disagree with their values, I respect them for honesty. Folks like Anderson infuriate me because they couch their desire for a universe driven by “non-monetary” rewards for work in a vision of a profit-making economy.

Thankfully, Anderson has been revealed in his true colors: chunks of his book have been liberally plagiarized from Wikipedia because apparently, it was just too much of a hassle to cite properly: “he and his publisher ‘couldn’t agree on a footnote policy for Wikipedia entries’ ” Oh, cry me a river.

According to Anderson’s defense, everything is free online because the Internet makes assigning ownership so difficult that property ceases to exist. I personally believe the Internet necessitates a new definition of intellectual property, not an elimination of intellectual property as a category altogether. Without property, you have no philosophical basis for a market economy. So Anderson’s plagiarism and his cavalier response to being exposed suggest he doesn’t really believe in markets at all.

2 Comments on “Chris Anderson Practices What He Preaches?”

  1. 1 Michael Morgenstern said at 12:07 pm on July 9th, 2009:


    It's a bit off topic but I'd love to hear your thoughts on the Singluarity concept by Ray Kurzweil. At the very least, the part of his argument I am convinced of is that computers will gradually swallow almost every job there is. At some foreseeable point in the future we will be able to make robots to be our farmers, doctors, and maybe one day even ad reps.

    This ties into the "economy of free" even more, I think. This world would definitely be able to support many more people than it could provide jobs for. What happens to money then? Maybe this shift is what finally allows us to not charge for any content. So why do people produce? Would the only viable industries be technology and custom-handbag manufacturing?

    Random thoughts inspired by your article….

  2. 2 Preppy McPrepperson said at 2:16 pm on July 9th, 2009:

    Kurzweil is a little too sci-fi for my tastes. But yes, you've distilled the only part of his vision that has real implications.

    But I'm not sure successfully staffing the world with robots DOES change the economics of free. Robots are expensive to make. They require metal and plastic and energy. Since the ad-rep-robot himself does not pay you, do his ad-clients now pay cash to the robot-making factory? How might this work–is the dollar value of advertising equivalent to the dollar value of investments in a robot-plant? Probably not.

    In other words, the core of Anderson's or Kurzweil's argument is that capitalism is a function of scarcity. Therefore if technology enables us to make everything in abundance, there is no capitalism and we all thrive or starve equally.

    I disagree. I think there are still markets even in the universe of abundance, as historically there have been. See Adam Smith, "truck and barter."

    So, to get back on topic, Anderson is not wrong to say (A) there will still be big business in the abundant Internet age, but he's wrong to suggest that (B) abolishing property is the way to get there.

    That suggests to me either that he is stupid and really believes (B)–>(A) or that he's disingenuous and doesn't really care about achieving (A) at all. The plagiarism scandal reveals him to be the latter.

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