Friday 31 July 2009

Just How Free is Free?

So what have we learned this month? Seth Godin thinks free is good; Chris Anderson thinks free’s good as long as free’s actually freemium; Malcolm Gladwell thinks free doesn’t work; anyone without an agent thinks free’s the cure for everything from cancer to climate change; and a whole host of frightened writers with an agent thinks the devil’s put a lot of idle wannabes’ hands to work and come up with free.

But isn’t every single one of them actually missing the point? Free isn’t free at all. Free’s a privilege a small minority of already lucky people have bought at the expense of everyone else.

The problem is this, and funnily enough, it originates from the camp in which I’ve well and truly planted myself. The freevolutionaries would have us believe the internet has revolutionised a writer’s access to the marketplace, and the consumer’s access to all and every form of writing that exists outside the mainstream. Free is empowering – it means anyone’s work can be read by anyone. The cream will rise; bottom-up self-forming groups of devoted fans will create trusted portals of true excellence where the world’s readers can find the very best of the kind of stuff they like; the pie of culture consumers’ money will be able to be sliced up amongst everyone, by everyone.

For the freevolutionaries, in other words, free is a matter of enfranchisement. What they’re waving the flag for is universal cultural suffrage. Which is not only revolutionary. It’s fantastic.

Only it’s not. It’s not only not true, it’s a dangerous, dangerous idea. Which is why my beef’s not really with those fighting the freerguard of stuckism. They think free is dangerous too. And what’s more they’re so obviously wrong I’m happy to let them carry on talking to themselves whilst the rest of us have a debate that matters.

The reason it’s dangerous to see posting your material for free on the internet as universally enfranchising is this. Suppose we win that battle, get others to see that yes, there’s not only a kind of moral imperative to empower producers and consumers, to pay by merit, and to acknowledge that culture belongs to the people not an elite; but there’s also a pretty hot business case for ditching any form of protectionism in our approach to free. Suppose we do all that, then the war’s won. We’ve handed cultural power back to the producers of culture, where it belongs.

Only it’s not, and we haven’t. In many ways, we’ve created a worse situation than the one we’re in today. And we’ve convinced ourselves it’s not a problem at all. By focusing the battle for cultural access (for producers and consumers) we’ve ignored the billions who’ve never seen, or even heard of, a computer. We’ve defined them out of the cultural conversation altogether. By creating the illusion of universal access to the market, and a more meritocratic system of market-driven reward for producers of culture, we’ve enforced rather than deconstructed the idea that culture comes from and belongs to the privileged.

And even worse. What of those on the periphery. What of the Sao Paolo poet who has brief and intermittent access to the one computer in the shanty. He can post his work for the world to see. He can be picked up by trusted cultural portals and brought to the attention of millions. He does have access to the market. Problem solved. Great. Only…how does the market, that thinks he’s great and thinks he should have a slice of the pie, actually pay him? No, really? Into which Paypal account do they put their $9.99? How does he use the money they’re willing to pay to get the goods he needs to buy?

So free’s bad then? No. Free’s good. Free is great. Free is empowering and enfranchising, but it’s not a final answer. It has to be part of a strategy that seeks to make cultural access truly global, and access to the market truly universal. Free is part of a much wider nexus of moral and practical imperatives designed to remove more slices of the pie from privileged hands and put them where they truly belong. The cultural question won’t be answered until the poet of Sao Paolo can put his work somewhere for everyone to see, and the coconut harvester in Laos can offer a part of his material possessions in a way that is materially useful for the betterment of the poet’s life.

Free as the debate is put today will cost many in the publishing industry a portion of their salary, and some their jobs, and it will take that money and give it to great writers currently outside the mainstream. And hurrah for that. But when free is really free a whole lot more of those in the industry will lose a whole lot more money and jobs; and those who benefit from the first wave of free will lose out to the same degree. And the slices of all of their pies will end up in Sao Paolo and Laos and Monrovia and the Amazon Basin and the deserts of Mongolia. And, if we really care about culture, a double and a triple hurrah for that.

©copyright Dan Holloway, July 29 2009. This is an expansion of a point I made on Jonathan Fields’ blog on July 26, and of a subsequent e-mail I sent to Dr Christine McDougall.


  1. Fascinating and thoughtful. Thank you. One problem is that there has always been a privileged class. When the poem is published by Random House and marketed by their giant advertising arm, the poor fellow in Laos hasn't the funds to buy a copy.

    Self-publishing for free on the Internet won't change his lack of access I don't think. And yet, paper offers one thing that the internet can not: lending libraries.

    I can mail my copy of Keats to a missionary in Laos, and she, without electricity, wireless, computer or Internet, can read Keats to everyone in the village, and in turn, lend it to the next village down the road...

    I think that freely available on the Internet will serve to reduce the availability of new literary works on paper, but increase availability in the electronic world. It's a difficult decision as to whether the net result is positive or not.

    Very thought provoking.

  2. Hi Buck, thank you for coming over. This is exactly the problem - lots of people think the Internet is THE answer, and don't realise taht although it widens the sphere of access, it doesn't make it universal. The problem with thinking we've found THE answer, is that we stop asking the question.

  3. Thoughtful post, Dan. One of the most frustrating aspects of the "print is dead/eBooks are the future" debate is the fact that print is still the only option for the vast majority of people around the world, and will be for a while yet. Those of us with broadband access, and blogs, and Twitter accounts, often fail to realize that we're way ahead of the global curve. We're NOT the benchmark, and believing we are is dangerous, even for those coming from a purely capitalistic perspective.

  4. Thanks, Guy. Yes, the problem is, of course, that all the debate takes place on the Web - and often no matter how many places you go you will find the same names discussing the same names, discussing the same things, and we find it very easy to believe that the conversation is representative of reality.

    I think as internet access becomes wider, an even bigger problem will emerge as people are able to get their work out there, but unable to be meaningfully remunerated - we run the risk of a whole new wave of cultural exploitation as people "helpfully" offer to take these artists under their wing.

  5. I came here from Facebook after reading your email... holy shit, you have made me think about the Internet and free resources in a new light. I haven't thought about it this way. You bring up a lot of good points now.

    I didn't realize that many, many people all over the world will be left behind with the so-called E-Book/Free revolution.

    It's infuriating when I think about how many Americans own an iPhone, iPod, laptop, cell phone, and a fancy digital camera, while many people in other parts of the world have NEVER even heard of the Internet, let alone used a computer.

    This must change!

  6. Hey, thanks for coming over!

    Yeah, I think sometimes we live in such a protected bubble that we forget it IS a bubble and think it's the whole world. It almost certainly winds people up, and almost certainly I go too far much of the time, but I kind of see it (bad extended metaphor coming up) as my job to try and pop that bubble from time to time and get people to see outside their own small world. I think it's impotrant - the first part of making the world better has to be to be a humanisation of those people just think of as "other" - and that means taking tehm uncomfortable places and seeing "yeah, they're people with aspirations and hopes and emotions just like me - different hopes and aspirations andemotions, sure, but the basic ingredients are the same."

    If serial killer thrillers teach us anything, it's that it's much harder to waste someone you see as a human being.

    On a side note, and without wanting to be sycophantic - that kind of shocking people outside their comfort zone to make them see the common humanity is one of the things your work does so well.