Sunday, August 9, 2009

Free by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson is an excellent synthesizer of ideas. He's gifted at gathering and regurgitating information*, and he ties this information together with glib and highly readable prose.

After finishing this book, however, I'm left with a dim view of Chris Anderson's thinking. He's an excellent writer, and he has a knack for capturing the latest and trendiest memes of the world of technology. The problem, however, is Free just isn't that insightful.

Many elements of the book are nothing more than diversions from the book's central theme (typical examples: a three-page history of the number zero, a two-page summary of the widely-known story of Gillette and his razor/razor blade pricing model, unnecessary paragraph-long etymologies for everything from the word economics to the word zero, innumerable and laughably liberal quotations from Wikipedia, etc.).

Yes, computing, processing, data storage and data transport costs are all in secular decline. Yes, that makes the sharing of information cheaper and cheaper. This is all obvious groundwork that Anderson already laid down in his previous book, The Long Tail.

And yes, after reading this book, I am now aware of (and have unfortunately dedicated a meaningful portion of my limited mental storage space to) dozens of trivial details about Jell-O, Benjamin Babbit (he was the inventor of the free sample, according to Anderson's Wikipedia regurgitations), the cost structure underlying Ryanair's free air travel (which isn't really free) and some useless generalizations about why $10 per year is the optimal price to charge for a magazine subscription.

Nobody needs another book filled with silly anecdotes, especially when the silliest ones always seem to stick in the mind.

Unfortunately, Free left me with the same impression I had after reading The Long Tail: Anderson's books (at least so far) are simply magazine articles with extra filler. Beyond the trivia and the dozens of largely unrelated anecdotes, there is little insight here.

In short, Free is a decent magazine article turned into a bad book.
* I've already discussed the plagiarism controversy in Anderson's Free on my writing blog, and I consider it such a painfully obvious example of plagiarism that I won't rehash it in detail here. Suffice it to say that Anderson took text and ideas verbatim from Wikipedia, and when caught, claimed he meant to take ideas from Wikipedia and paraphrase them. Sadly, these are identical crimes of scholarship. Without knowing it, Anderson admitted to being a plagiarist in his attempt to defend himself.

I hope Chris Anderson now has a more nuanced understanding of what, exactly, plagiarism is. Regrettably, it's too late for this book.

Finally, despite the fact that Free was a disappointment, it did yield three titles that I think might be very much worth reading (the fourth book on the list below, Steve Levy's Hackers, I've already read and recommend heartily). Even bad books can yield interesting further reading material.

Reading List for Free:
New Rules for the New Economy by Kevin Kelly
Telecosm: The World After Bandwidth Abundance by George Gilder
Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology by George Gilder
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy

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