Here’s my Guardian review of Chris Anderson’s excellent new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. As with The Long Tail, Free gave me lots to think about: it does a tremendous job of enumerating the economic and business opportunities derived from the net’s capacity to deliver so much for free. However, I think that, as with The Long Tail, Free stops short of considering one of the most important aspects of the net: the extent to which purely non-economic, non-commercial activity is filling in niches that were formerly reserved for commercial undertakings, or were altogether invisible.
There’s plenty in our world that lives outside of the marketplace: it’s a rare family that uses spot-auctions to determine the dinner menu or where to go for holidays. Who gets which chair and desk at your office is more likely to be determined on the lines of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” than on the basis of the infallible wisdom of the marketplace. The internally socialistic, externally capitalistic character of most of our institutions tells us that there’s something to the idea that markets may not be the solution to all our problems.
And here’s where Free starts to trip up. Though Anderson celebrates the best of non-commercial and anti-commercial net-culture, from amateur creativity to Freecycle, he also goes through a series of tortured (and ultimately less than convincing) exercises to put a dollar value on this activity, to explain the monetary worth of Wikipedia, for example.
And there is certainly some portion of this “free” activity that was created in a bid to join the non-free economy: would-be Hollywood auteurs who hope to be discovered on YouTube, for example. There’s also plenty of blended free and non-free activity
But for the sizeable fraction of this material – and it is sizeable – that was created with no expectation of joining the monetary economy, with no expectation of winning some future benefit for its author, that was created for joy, or love, or compulsion, or conversation, it is just wrong to say that the “price” of the material is “free”.