Resolved: The New York Times Should Be Staffed By Volunteers, Like Meals On Wheels


Flaming Eggheads: In the current New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell gives an energetic pan to Chris Anderson's Free: The Future of a Radical Price. As Anil Dash points out, there's a vehement tone to Gladwell's review that suggests some harder feelings at work than you'd expect in a standard piece of intra-Condé Nast logrolling. Anderson has replied somewhat snippily too. (Disclosure: I know Anderson medium well and like him; Gladwell I've never met but he looks cool in pictures.)

The central virtue of Wired, as a great man once told me, was to be right enough on the large trend that it could afford to be repeatedly, spectacularly wrong on almost all the specifics. As a result, you can nearly always refute a Wired-type manifesto by pointing out how facts on the ground keep falling short of the vision. (I used to do that a lot, sometimes in the pages of Wired itself.) So Gladwell is on semi-solid ground in referring to YouTube's high maintenance costs, The Wall Street Journal website's (sporadically applied) pay structure, premium cable, and iPhone downloads as areas where free isn't paying and paid-for is paying.

Gladwell gets lost in his other arguments, though. He pedantically objects to Stewart Brand's statement that "information wants to be free," by noting, correctly, that "information can't actually want anything." But then he uses that same formula, stating that in another case, "information does not want to be free. It wants to be really, really expensive."

That other case is the market for orphan pharmaceuticals, which are growing more expensive. But Gladwell was right the first time: The new drug recipes don't want to be free or expensive. Their manufacturers want them to be expensive; many other parties (buyers, industrial spies, some national governments, and after a period of protection, U.S. patent laws) want them to be free.

Some of those parties have more moral legitimacy than others, but the point is that there are two parties to every deal. Gladwell uses this point when it serves him. He starts off his review by citing a dispute between the Dallas Morning News (which wants to license its content at a high price) and Amazon.com (which wants to pay close-to-free prices to repackage the paper's content). In Gladwell's formulation, this undermines Brand's famous phrase. "Why," he writes, "are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?"

But most of us have no problem with the principle that you have to pay for quality, and that view certainly serves the interests of Morning News owner A. H. Belo Corporation. A. H. Belo doesn't enjoy Amazon's vast market cap, but it has been around for more than 150 years and lists on the New York Stock Exchange — unlike Amazon, which lists in the Nasdaq ghetto. Should Belo's concerns be privileged because its industry is in decline?

For all the quibbling, it seems pretty straightforward that over time, the natural progression of information is to become worth $0.00. I might feel differently if I were a paleontologist trying to get a dig funded, but to take an example close to hand: A brand new title from Gladwell or Anderson fetches a hefty price; after only a few weeks it becomes available for a few bucks on the remainder table, after a year or so for a dollar at the charity bin; and eventually it will be put out by the curb, to be picked up for free by trashpickers like me.

And that's just information in some physical delivery form. (That is, right now, a nice printed book has some intrinsic value.) The effect is even sharper for pure information. Right now it might be worth it to me to hire somebody to steal Gladwell's notebooks or memory stick, in the hope of using his ideas to write a bestseller of my own. But the value of those intellectual nuggets drops rapidly. Death accelerates the process: Anderson's personal papers may one day be of interest to some university archive, but eventually they will be picked over and thrown out by disinterested liquidators (who I like to imagine speaking in broad cockney accents). Maybe some portions will be digitized, but in time they'll be "accidentally" deleted to make space for something more current.

The other time factor is that right now we are in a period of plummeting prices for the kind of information both men are writing about. To take Gladwell's examples: Downloading an album's worth of music is cheaper than buying a CD used to be. Premium cable, in adjusted dollars, is cheaper than it was when Jerry Levin first cooked up that so-crazy-it-might-work idea. Pharmaceutical information tends downward so quickly that it requires a vast scaffolding of IP protection and regulation to keep it up. That trend may change with new models of content creation or the invention of smellivision or whatever. But right now it's Anderson's view that is ascendant.

You can, of course, read Gladwell's review for free.