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Gladwell vs. Anderson – my kind of fight

July 1, 2009

I like Malcolm Gladwell, but never more than this week, after reading his critique of Chris Anderson’s new book Free: the future of a radical price.  These two journalistic heavyweights have had a public debate that I will try and sum up in two lines:

Anderson: there is one iron law of the information economy – in the end, all information will be free

Gladwell: if there is a law of the internet age, it is that there are no iron laws – and the notion that everything can be free is wrong

In a book review in The New Yorker, Gladwell eloquently and satisfyingly pulls apart Anderson’s arguments.  So far, Anderson seems unable to fight back.  His response, posted this week at wired.com, is weak.

Reading Gladwell’s article and Anderson’s response is worth doing, if only to see how one-sided this argument is.  But I wanted to draw out a slightly different conclusion from Anderson’s argument – and one that perhaps hints at the solution to the problems caused by the free web.

I can’t read Free, as I am not a book reviewer [and it’s not published until next week].  However, back in 2007, Anderson wrote a precursor to his book – an article in The World in 2008 (published by The Economist), entitled “Freeconomics: there really is such a thing as a free lunch” [subscription required].

I was pretty inspired, as I liked Anderson’s general theorising in his 2006 book The Long Tail and figured, here’s a guy not afraid to look at things in a new way.  But the difficulty was, as I read, it became clear his article was full of non-sequiturs.  Here’s one:

“The cost of storing or transmitting a kilobyte of data really is now too cheap to meter” therefore the transmission of data is/will be free

Contrary to Anderson’s conclusion, it struck me that the anomaly here is not the falling cost of data transmission, but our present inability to measure tiny quantities of value, or cash.  You could call it the problem of quantum finance.  To follow a quantum physics parallel, the idea is that every cash payment really consists of tiny financial quanta.  That is not so weird, as that is how money works – we call them cents, or pence – but the problem is that we need smaller units.  We need financial quanta.

Today, we only have the means to measure financial quanta when they stack up into great amounts (like dollars or pounds).  But if we can develop a system for measuring financial quanta practically, that is when the economy of information will begin to function properly.

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2 comments

  1. Pete,

    This is genius. “The quanta of Finance”?!

    I *love* this. This is especially key to the industry I’m in where we’re donating to Charity on the back of tiny commissions from online transactions.

    Great insight and captured very succinctly.

    Geoff


  2. Very good.

    ‘Quanta of Finance’ I like, could easily be a Bond sequel, although I’d argue that we are easily able to measure much smaller amounts than dollars or pounds.

    Can’t they both be almost right, though?

    I can imagine a time when data are free, but that is because they are worthless – there is so much, everywhere. Conversely, information, that is data contextualilsed, analysed and explained, would become ever more valuable as the work required to mine it from data is ever more cumbersome and complex.



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