Free, or really Free?

The worst thing about public talks given by the new tech glitterati, Anderson, Shirky, Steven Berlin Johnson and their ilk, is not the half-baked philosophastry, the down-pat ‘insights’ and general air of arrogance: it’s the fawning, my-hero puppy-dog questions the audience ask. Andrew Keen may be as wrong as dogshit for breakfast, but he gets an argument going. Thursday’s appearance by Chris Anderson at the ICA to plug his latest book Free, the basic argument of which is, as he succinctly tells us, that the twentieth century’s idea of free goods as too-good-to-be-true loss-leaders has given way to an economic model where, due to rapidly falling costs of bandwidth, storage and processing power (he refers to Moore’s Law as if it causes the number of transistors on a microchip to increase) it is possible to run businesses by giving away a lot of things to a lot of people for free.

And right on cue, the first question is: ‘Er, Malcolm Galdwell didn’t like your book. What do you think of that’. This questioner didn’t appear to even have read Gladwell’s review of Free: he didn’t repeat any of its arguments; he just wanted to know what Anderson thought about getting a bad review. Maybe I shouldn’t sneer; I make a bit of a hash of asking my question, and Harkin tries to wrap me up, but the gist is this:

A real model of Free exists, and that is Free Software. Created in collaboration between individuals without monetary incentive and available to anyone to use. It’s a model of collective knowledge creation compared to which, Anderson really is still talking about a twentieth century model of ‘free’, because what’s given away is essentially as much of a loss-leader for ‘freemium’ (this kind of hateful vocabulary can only exist in the head of someone who thinks in ‘business ideas’) content as a Be-Ro home recipes book. I suggest that Anderson may be doing the kind of disservice to real Free that Eric Raymond did in 1997 with the Open Source Initiative, responsible in some way for the incoherent muddle of underhand business models that now revolve around the words ‘open source’ (Microsoft’s definition-bending; the ‘community version’ scam; the not-quite-proprietary CMS model where it’s ‘Open Source’ but only one company’s developers work on it).

That’s definitely a lot better than I put it in person. Anyway, Anderson gratifyingly responds with ‘I disagree with everything you just said’. He counts Open Source an unqualified success, but all his examples are those of businesses that have made money using an open source business model. Any question of whether software or our lives have got better because of the phenomenon is quite clearly ultra vires. (The ‘business idea’: it’s not really an idea).

There’s some ‘free’ giveaway stunts with the book itself (time-limited downloads etc: It’s now published on scribd, in a disgustingly unusable fashion). Anderson tries to impress us that he’s persuaded Disney, his publishers, to do any of this. He boasts about how outside the working day he licenses much of his own personal work under Creative Commons licenses; he runs an ‘open source’ hardware company making drones (from the website it looks like a sort of model airplane club, but when an American says ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ you can’t help but think of dead Afghan wedding guests). It sounds nice to be Mr Chris Anderson, and he’s certainly making the most of his ‘cognitive surplus‘, but you hardly get the feeling he’d be making the drones if it didn’t pay off somehow.

Knowledge can be properly Free, when supported by individuals’ donations of their time (like Wikipedia) and taxpayer-funded institutions’ sense of the public good (like the Flickr commons). The knowledge commons is something that belongs to us all, all of it and can’t be withdrawn at the whim of a media baron, or disappear with financial restructuring. To survive, the commons also needs continual replenishment with new material, and a book that can only be read on a website for a week doesn’t count. This other kind of free (like the software that runs this blog), the Anderson free, is certainly useful, but to confuse the two is to flatter businessmen and threaten the future of our culture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s