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Writing for Free: Anderson, Gladwell, and YOU Have an Opinion Too!

One reason I was abashed when the plagiarism accusations (justified, owned, apologized for, and, I hope, corrected)  came out about Chris Anderson's new book FREE is that I find him terrifically interesting and unusually thoughtful, even if his contribution is chiefly in raising timely questions, not answering them.  Fortunately, his unacknowledged borrowings from Wikipedia have not swamped the fact that we all urgently want a conversation on what is or isn't free and whether being free is or isn't good for us.


Here's the beginning salvo, fired by Malcom Gladwell, another popularizing author whom I admire very much for the way he brings complex questions into a national conversation.   Gladwell in the New Yorker and then Anderson's response in Wired.  

Here's the url for Gladwell's review, "Writing for Free."  You can feel his anxiety (justified, of course) in this writing, as he sees one after another of his fellow journalists left without jobs as this or that newspaper and magazine folds.   But are his conclusions logical, justified, the only way of thinking about the future of journalism (even if print newspapers and magazines are lost):


Here is the punchline from Gladwell's review of Anderson and it is so true that I urge you to read this exchange and think about it.  I think Gladwell is exactly right in this conclusion:

"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 Journalhas found that more than a million subscribers are quite happy to payfor the privilege of reading online. Broadcast television?the originalpractitioner of Free?is struggling. But premium cable, with its stiffmonthly charges for specialty content, is doing just fine. Apple maysoon make more money selling iPhone downloads (ideas) than it does fromthe iPhone itself (stuff). The company could one day give away theiPhone to boost downloads; it could give away the downloads to boostiPhone sales; or it could continue to do what it does now, and chargefor both. Who knows? The only iron law here is the one too obvious towrite a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformedthe ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws."


Read them, and the energetic conversation about what it means for information to be "free" in an era of escalating debt, unemployment, layoffs, bankruptcies, and collapse.  Who pays in the end for what's free?  That is the question.  Attention to next year's HASTAC Scholars:   this will be a great forum topic.  In the meantime, let us know:  What do YOU think?   It won't cost you a cent.   After all, to be a HASTAC member doesn't cost you a thing.  No dues.  Nothing.   After all, HASTAC, like all information, wants to be free.  Right?  


Well, not exactly.  And that's Gladwell's point.  A lot of what seems, on the consumer end, to be free, isn't free at all when you look at the producers.  That is one of the many factors fudged by a glib definition of what a "prosumer" (producers who are also consumers) really is.   Production and consumption come with different outlays, different responsibilities, and, well, different costs.  And understanding the nature of those costs is what every communications media participant is trying to figure out for the digital age.  The real question isn't "is it free?" but "free to whom?"  And, what are the hidden costs of a zero pricetag?  And the hidden benefits of offering a product that costs something--in time if not in money--for "free."


Gladwell notes the perplexing examples of our time, that Apple may well make more from iPod downloads and iPhone aps then from the machinery; that the NY Times is struggling and having a hard time giving selling its products on line but the Wall Street Journal seems to be thriving with its pay-to-read online subscriptions.  Amazon makes more money from its technologies (software and hardware) for online product delivery than from the books it sells.  On and on.


These are complex issues for a fascinating and infinitely complex, transitional time, and give new twists and turns to Stewart Brand's original battle cry that "information wants to be free."







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