Living Easy, Living Free


Some digital infrastructure last week; construction costs not pictured 

I've not read Chris Anderson's new book yet, but I enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell's review of it in The New Yorker. After being riled to the point of almost throwing it at someone while reading The Long Tail, I'd been fearing that the aura of the visionary that mystifyingly grew around the Wired editor would make his new book immune from criticism. But this time, it looks like enough of the people at the parade have been able to see that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes: the lion's share of the press I've seen so far for Free: The Future of a Radical Price (interesting that his publisher's page lists a different title to the one on the dust jacket) has been mixed or, in Gladwell's case, withering.

Gladwell's someone I've had some problems with as a reader - I enjoy his magazine stuff but can't understand how he's been accorded the status of philosopher/guru when so many of his Big Ideas seem to be common sense dressed up for publication in the sort of togs that encourage people to want to be seen to own his books rather than actually read them. He can come across like another dinner party bore, full of inflated ideas fuelled by windy rhetoric that makes their exposition sound bigger and cleverer than they are. It's possible that competition for similar readers, or invitaions for slots on the same after-dinner speaker circuit, may have added acid to his bite. Yet his mauling of Anderson reads like an unfair fight, which is part of what makes the review even more entertaining.

Almost as entertaining as the news that Anderson, who elected to work on this book alone versus running parts of it past his readers for checking as per The Long Tail, had managed to plagiarise that most reliable of sources, Wikipedia, in compiling his new magnum opus. It's almost as if he'd planned it this way - the revelations and the widespread online reporting of them (of which this post is, of course, an unsolicited part) adding to the hype and hooplah surrounding next week's publication. But Anderson seems to feel the pain deeply; one imagines he wouldn't view this amount of free publicity as being worth the damaged rep. A book about how nothing based on ideas is worth paying for, written by someone who can't remember when an arrangement of words is his own work - you couldn't make it up, could you? If a student on the course I teach tried to pull that trick in their coursework they'd fail - yet Anderson has the gall to charge money for it.

And therein, ultimately, lies the major rub. Anderson says he'll make his book available for free - electronically, of course - when the "marginal cost" reaches zero (at the moment, he's only giving away 200 copies to people who agree to review it: which, to the untrained eye, looks more like adding 200 to the number of review copies than any major new paradigm-shifting publishing initiative). When he's talking about the businesses he critiques, these "marginal costs" relate usually to manufacture and distribution. His thesis would seem to be (though I stress again I've not read the book yet, so I can't be certain) that ideas don't have manufacturing costs, and digital distribution is as near to free as makes no difference already. So I don't see why he can't have done without a publisher's advance (and the contractual obligation that an advance entails to sell a book in order to pay it back) and just written it in his spare time and posted the e-book on his website. That would at least have been intellectually honest, given that he foresees and, in one of the extracts Gladwell quotes, seems to look forward to an age in which journalism (and, by extension, book-writing) will be something people do for free as a hobby. He says he'll soon be announcing how the electronic editions of the book will be distributed for free - but it seems likely there will, at very least, be a delay between that happening, and the print publication of the paid-for book on July 7. Which is even more deeply ironic given that Anderson is one of those joining in on Jeff Jarvis's blog to attack an initiative that would give newspaper websites 24 hours exclusive use of their own stories before aggregators could use them (an idea which, incidentally, I too find bananas, though not for all of the same reasons as Anderson and Jarvis; and not to be confused with today's other report of plans by the Newspaper Licensing Agency to make moves against "scrapers", which I've made my feelings clear about in my comment to this piece at PaidContent).

Instead of the shrewd free-thinker (no pun intended) Anderson became hailed as after The Long Tail, he reminds me of a very different kind of iconoclast. (I realise he wasn't responsible for the way he or his work were portrayed, but as Gladwell carefully picks apart the trademark elements of Anderson's prose style, it's clear to see that he's put a lot of work into positioning himself as a lecture circuit visionary.) I've witnessed their tactics first-hand on many occasions, but the most vivid example was seen during the Poll Tax march in London on March 31, 1990.

As the march bottlenecked in Whitehall, and with the ranks of agitated, shield-wielding riot squad becoming ever more itchy, you saw these "revolutionaries" pick up stones, bottles, anything else to hand, and launch them at the police. Before they did so they made sure their faces were covered with scarves and sunglasses, and they were careful to launch their missiles from behind at least ten rows of ordinary, innocent protesters, so that when the inevitable police beatings began, those lobbing rocks had a human cushion to protect them. They wanted to push their own agenda - fighting police - but didn't want to get injured or arrested in the fallout.

Whether he means to be or not (and there are signs amid the plagiarism press round that the kind of humility absent from the pages of The Long Tail may be emerging, which might be bad news for his publishers or his speaking bookers, but better news for his readers and those involved in the creative industries his theories implicitly attack), Anderson looks very much like one of their intellectual equivalents. He positions himself safely (his Wired job, with its salary and its book leave; his Hyperion deal, which allows him time to research and write his books) while calling for the whole edifice that supports him to be brought crashing down. He's at the back, throwing bricks, letting others soak up the blows that follow - all the while positioning himself as a leader, a radical, a seer. Like a cult leader who'll encourage others to take a vow of poverty while living the high life on their donations, Anderson encourages people to think of their intellectual production as inherently, inevitably valueless, while building his own brand out of the very opposite reality.


UPDATE: Anyone vaguely interested in the above is strongly advised to take a look at this superb piece by Mic Wright. My gathering sense had been that the only viable future (albeit an extremely precarious one) for journalism, music and the arts will be a return to Renaissance-style patronage; Wright witheringly notes that what Anderson is proposing for the creative industries is akin to an earlier economic relationship, that between feudal lord and serf.  


Fascinating and very provocative response to this debate! Well-written and well reasoned -- thanks for directing me to it.

posted by: Susan Orlean: 1 Jul, 2009 14:25:26

The best I've read about Anderson. Thanks so much.

posted by: Anna Clark: 1 Jul, 2009 18:00:00

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