Thursday, July 02, 2009

Quick hits

Two quick things to read as we approach the holiday weekend:

  • Just had a chance to read Malcolm Gladwell's review/critique in the New Yorker of Chris Anderson's newest book "Free," due out next week. Obviously, I haven't read the book yet, but I have read a lot of the buzz and some of what Anderson has written in advance, and I think Gladwell does a good job of grounding this discussion in reality. As Gladwell writes:
    Anderson wants to take “too cheap to meter” seriously, because he believes that we are on the cusp of our own “too cheap to meter” revolution with computer processing, storage, and bandwidth. But here is the second and broader problem with Anderson’s argument: he is asking the wrong question. It is pointless to wonder what would have happened if Strauss’s prediction had come true while rushing past the reasons that it could not have come true. ...
    Strauss’s optimism was driven by the fuel cost of nuclear energy—which was so low compared with its fossil-fuel counterparts that he considered it (to borrow Anderson’s phrase) close enough to free to round down. Generating and distributing electricity, however, requires a vast and expensive infrastructure of transmission lines and power plants—and it is this infrastructure that accounts for most of the cost of electricity. Fuel prices are only a small part of that. As Gordon Dean, Strauss’s predecessor at the A.E.C., wrote, “Even if coal were mined and distributed free to electric generating plants today, the reduction in your monthly electricity bill would amount to but twenty per cent, so great is the cost of the plant itself and the distribution system.”

    This is the kind of error that technological utopians make. They assume that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors—that if you change the fuel you change the whole system.
  • UPDATE: A Squidoo site has been set up to aggregate lots of the arguments for and against "Free." As you can tell from above, I think Gladwell brings some reality to the debate. I also think Mitch Ratcliffe's argument that free is part of a business strategy but not an entire business plan carries some weight. And Seth Godin is right when he says the editor's role to sort through all this takes on more importance -- something I'm not sure newsrooms understand as they jettison copy editors instead of retraining and repurposing their talents, which can be a good match for this. One thing, of course, is certain, there will be lots of arguments about this - and none of it is really new. Back in 2002, Clay Shirky was writing about the paradox of the amateur. (And here's the short link to Fin O'Reilly's post that kind of runs out of the margins in the comments.
Happy holiday weekend!

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At 7/2/09, 9:22 PM, Blogger Fin O'Reilly said...

Anderson's book seems to be getting shorter shrift this time around.
I don't know if it's because of the recession or because he has moved from a fairly specific phenomenon of digital reproduction in the long tail to a far wider, more generalist topic that is soundbite- and marketing-friendly but ultimately harder to argue.

At 7/2/09, 11:34 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I think that this time he is making many more assumptions that can be questioned.

I think Gladwell's biggest contribution to the debate is separating production from distribution. In many ways, we already can argue that most of our costs are in distribution (hey, get another one of those TV specials just for the cost of "shipping and handling" - though in those cases I think we can assume the S&H charge somewhat exceeds the actual cost).

And, of course, the devil is in the details and the semantics. "Information" might have marginal costs near zero. Does "knowledge" also? And will people value "knowledge" instead of information, and under what circumstances?

And is journalism as we practice it more information or knowledge?

A very fertile research field.


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