The Future of Free

I just came across an excellent and important article the old fashioned way–someone pushed a piece of paper in front of me. (Actually, the paper got stuck in my in-basket for a few months, and I just unearthed it. Is that an argument for digitization? Not necessarily. I lose things on my computer all the time. But I digress.) Malcolm Gladwell writes a tour de force review debunking Chris Anderson’s new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (retailing for $26.99!).

Anderson’s premise is, as Gladwell says, “essentially an extended elaboration of Stewart Brand’s famous declaration that ‘information wants to be free.’ ” Wikipedia is free. YouTube is free. Google is free. (For consumers, that is.) So the future of any “information”–journalism, music, photographs–is free. Right? That of course is both true and totally bogus.

YouTube is free for providers and consumers–but not for YouTube. It’s bandwidth probably costs YouTube $365 million. Not very free. And advertisers aren’t flocking to appear alongside amateur cat videos. So YouTube has had to pay another $260 million for professional content that advertisers are willing to sponsor. So it’s probably losing half a billion dollars a year.

Just because the content is “free” doesn’t mean the infrastructure is free (see here). Fifty years ago the head of the Atomic Energy Commission predicted energy would be free. We know what happened to that! As Gladwell notes, even if coal were mined and distributed free to power plants, the average consumer’s electric bill would only drop twenty percent. The rest is infrastructure. The technological utopians tend to forget this inconvenient detail. At some point you gotta pay the piper.

But read Gladwell’s excellent piece in full as these are just appetizers. To be sure, there are challenges posed by the world of free, but coming up with ideas that will make it worthwhile for someone to part with their money–now that’s always going to be part of the future.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.