Friday, 10 July 2009

Free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can't

There is an episode of The Simpsons in which a town meeting, called to discuss how best to spend a budgetary surplus, is interrupted by one Lyle Langley, a P.T Barnum type who persuades the uncritically accepting townfolk to purchase an - ultimately disastrous - monorail. The sales pitch, his glib manner, and, perhaps more than anything, the look of smug self-importance on Langley's face were each faithfully reproduced, ten days ago, when Wired editor and Long Tail author, Chris Anderson took the stage at the RSA to sell his - very expensive - new book, Free, about how everyone should give the fruits of their labour away for free. It is significant that Anderson was promoting a book about economics in an arts institution because no real economist, nor, for that matter, first year economics undergraduate would take any of Anderson's ideas half way seriously, labouring as he is under the bizarre assumption that exchange value is directly related to the cost of production. He claims that the difference between what he calls "Old Free (not really free)" and "Twenty-First Century Free" is that now production costs nothing, or as good as nothing (this as good as nothing is quite significant, he uses it in the most slippery of fashions to magic away billions) companies really can afford to give things away for free without any catch (the old saw, there's no such thing as a free lunch being the maxim of "Old Free" now superceded). Now, Coca-Cola has, for over a century, cost little more than a few cents to produce gallons of the stuff, but is there a Coke tap in my kitchen next to the hot and cold, pumping out brown sugary goodness, unmetered, whenever I want it? No, there isn't and there never will be. Coke did in fact give away coupons redeemable for a free bottle for years as a young company, just as many dot.coms have started up offering a service for free, only to get you hooked so they can then start charging, or otherwise extracting revenue from you. It's the old Book Club scam, oldest trick in the book. And anyone who thinks that there is something new and original about extracting that revenue by selling its audience to advertisers rather than selling its product to consumers, has obviously never heard of a little invention called the radio. 

Anderson's whole thesis relies on an extraordinary fantasy - that production no longer exists. This operation, diagnosed as magical thinking by Mr Hatherley, seeks the absolute negation, not just of the production process but of the producers themselves, the industrial working class. "If you can outsource something to India, it is just one more step to turn it into software," claims Anderson, expressing in one fell swoop his absolute contempt for the poor and his earnest desire to make them disappear, vanish into the ether. His whole premiss relies, essentially, on everybody already being upper middle class, everybody already having lots of disposable income - or if not everyone, then everyone who deserves a voice in the brave new world of web 2.0. 

Like most bourgeois theorists, of course, Anderson insists loudly that, "this is not a prescription," merely an objective statement of the facts as they are, "You can argue whether it's right or wrong, but it's there. It's being done." Like, The Swedish Model, mentioned before, it is the logic of Thatcherism: There Is No Alternative. To believe such linguistic innocence is possible, in a purely informative and objective language with no performative or productive element, requires either extraordinary naivete or a mendacious slipperiness. As Malcolm Gladwell has asked, "Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?" If it really were the case that this was an emerging trend soon to dominate all economic life, it would be necessary to fight it. Fortunately, there is no great reason to believe so - outside of the specific case of the music and publishing industries where there really is a fight be had if we want to maintain any degree of quality in the newspapers we read and the music we listen to.

Throughout the talk he would dissimulate wildly, if asked a critical question about something specific he would respond in vague, general terms, if asked about something abstract and general, he would respond with reference to the one specific example that might just about fit, so long as you don't't actually know anything about the subject in question. No evidence is forthcoming at any point, just pure speculation dressed up as reportage. There is a reason for this. Much like his last book, The Long Tail, successfully demolished by economist Will Page simply by doing a bit of research beyond one's own dinner party friends, the fact is that there is no evidence to support Anderson's theory. A few anecdotes perhaps, the odd bit of 'common sense' that, like most 'common sense', turns out to be entirely mythical, and a lot of grand gestures. Yet for some reason they all lap it up, and after the talk there were some fairly extensive queues to fork out over £25 to buy a book about how everyone should give stuff away for free.