More Free

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Following up a bit on yesterday’s discussion of Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price, I’ve seen some interesting additional commentary from Seth Godin and Tim Lee. Anderson’s own response to Malcolm Gladwell is in some respects not totally responsive, but makes a number of additional points.

To clarify my own position, I think I would say that I basically agree with Anderson that “free is the future.” Where I guess I part ways with him is the sort of exciting up with people business guru tone of the whole thing. I think the Free future will be a very exciting place for people who don’t work in the Free’d sectors of the economy. Personal trainers and veterinarians and interior designers are going to have access to unprecedented consumption possibilities at low cost. But for the actually Free-ified sectors of the economy, the experience is going to be disappointing. Once upon a time, a media business—whether it charged a nominal price for content (newspaper) or not (broadcast television)—could take advantage of massive barriers to entry to generate monopoly rents. That then created not only big money for owners, but also a huge surplus that could be thrown around in all kinds of goofy ways (Roger Cohen informs us that he was once reprimanded for flying business class to South America on the grounds that “The Wall Street Journal flies first class”) that were fun for the key stakeholders in the industry. The same factors that are pushing things toward Free are, I think, basically just making key sectors of the economy less lucrative than they used to be. That’s a good thing, overall, but at the same time there’s no sense in trying to deny that many current stakeholders have every reason to be sad about current trends.