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July 21, 2009

Filed under: culture»pop»trendspotting

Free Time


Part 2: The Experiment

In my first post on Chris Anderson's Free, I joked that my lack of research for these posts matched that of my target, an entirely typical pop nonfiction title. After chapters three and four, that has stopped being funny. You can look at both of these chapters, but especially chapter three, as an experiment: what happens when a writer does everything you're not supposed to do, research-wise? How little can someone work and still get published? The answer, frankly, is appalling.

You may have heard about the accusations of plagiarism in Free. Plagiarism Today has a fine overview, although I also recommend clicking through to the original post at Virginia Quarterly Review, as well as the additional examples at Ed Champion's blog. To summarize, Anderson seems to have cribbed large portions of text from Wikipedia and other sources, without adequate credit. Anderson's explanation is that his original footnotes were removed very late in the publication process, and the subsequent "write-through" missed some paragraphs. Evidence certainly supports the existence of sloppy editing--I've seen repeated capitalization errors and odd word choices consistent with automated find-and-replace (Ronald Coase is described as "the firm [?], Nobel Prize-winning economist," for example).

I assume that my copy of Free is the revision with added inline citations. I sincerely hope that's the case, as I shudder to imagine a book containing more Wikipedia references than this one. A global search (one of the virtues of e-books) finds nine paragraphs where the collaborative encyclopedia is being used, not as an example of free content, but as an actual primary source. Anderson paraphrases from Wikipedia for the history of free lunches, usury, Babbitt's Soap, and more. He even quotes from newspaper articles via the Wikipedia pages. As a writer taught that citing the encyclopedia (even one that's user-generated) is weak sauce, I find this highly troubling, as does Research Cat. Perhaps the author is trying to show the value of free content by relying on it so heavily. If so, I'd like to point out another, equally free--but far more reputable--source of information: the public library.

But set aside the question of Anderson's Wikipedia use, or whether he is a plagiarist (incidentally, I think he is). Another weak point in chapter three (and, to a lesser extent, chapter four) is his reliance on other pop history titles for research material. At various times, Anderson cites as sources (deep breath): Charles Siefe's Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Wired Magazine, Heather Rogers' Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Seth Godin's Unleashing the Ideavirus, Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, and Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational. All in one chapter! It's not that these are bad books--on the contrary, I'm a huge fan of Ariely, Shirky, and Pollan--but they are not really works of scholarship that should be used as primary sources, much less (as happens here) bluntly paraphrased in lieu of original research. The impression given is that of a profoundly lazy writer, as if Anderson needed some padding for this book and simply grabbed whatever marginally-relevant material was close at hand.

And it gets worse, because Anderson doesn't just crib from these books. In at least one case, he's using them at cross-purposes to their actual contents. In his summary of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Anderson writes, from location 730:

When I was a kid, hunger was one of the main problems of poverty in America. Today, it's obesity. Something dramatic has changed in the world of agriculture in the past four decades--we got much better at growing food.
...and at location 761:
One aspect of agricultural abundance that touches every one of us every day is the Corn Economy. This extraordinary grass, bred by man over millenia to have larger and larger starch-filled kernels, produces more food per acre than any other plant on the Earth.


Today, we use corn for more than just food. Between synthetic fertilizer and breeding techniques that make corn the most efficient converter of sunlight and water to starch the world has ever seen, we are now swimming in a golden harvest of plenty--far more than we can eat. So corn has become an industrial feedstock for products of all sorts, from paint to packaging. Cheap corn has driven out many other foods from our diet and converted natural grass-eating animals, such as cows, into corn-processing machines.

Anderson seems amazed at the modern marvel of corn: it's used in toothpaste! Cosmetics! Linoleum! Ethanol fuel! Ah, but with the latter, he writes regretfully (location 772):
After decades of price declines, corn has in recent years started getting more expensive along with oil prices. But innovation abhors a rising commodity, so that rising price has simply accelerated the search for a way to make ethanol out of switchgrass or other forms of cellulose, which can be grown where corn cannot. Once that magic cellulose-eating enzyme is found, corn will get cheap again, and with it, food of all sorts.
It is hard to imagine how someone could get all this more wrong.

For a start, we don't find ourselves swimming in corn because it's an awesome supercrop, as Anderson claims. We grow it in such overwhelming quantities because it is massively subsidized by the federal government, the result of years upon years of industry lobbying. The market has nothing to do with the price of corn--it has hardly anything to do with the price of any American food goods, as any regular reader of Pollan's work should know. Much of the corn we grow is, in fact, inedible by humans: as Pollan actually writes in Omnivore's Dilemma, the corn grown by the factory farms of the midwest has been bred and genetically engineered into a product that's practically undigestible on its own. It's only good for high-fructose corn syrup and other industrial chemistry.

Indeed, to link this heavily-subsidized, artificially-abundant crop with "free" is to engage in bait-and-switch tactics. There's nothing free about the market in which it exists, and there's nothing free about that market's byproduct: a production chain that is unnatural, cruel to animals, harmful to developing economies, and results in food-like substances that are at least partially responsible for our epidemic of obesity and ill-health. We pay dearly for that corn, one way or another. To read Pollan's book as support for the view that we are "better at growing food" is at best missing the point, and at worst simply dishonest.

Anderson also, by the way, credits corn with the societal energy surplus that the Aztecs used to conquer much of Latin America. "Rice and wheat societies," he writes, "tended to be agrarian, inwardly focused cultures," while "corn's abundance made the Aztecs warlike." Yes, clearly rice and wheat economies contributed to the peaceful ways of historical China, Japan, India, and pretty much all of Europe, for whom armed conflict was a foreign concept until they traveled to the New World. They seem to have been fast learners once they got here, though, as evidenced by the greatly-diminished number of Aztecs.

In chapter four, Anderson takes these anecdotes that he's been compiling and starts to (finally!) turn them into an actual argument. Continuing to paraphrase liberally from Ariely's Predictably Irrational, Anderson gives a workable explanation of behavioral economics, and how "free" triggers a different mental reaction by consumers. He notes that there's a huge gap in perceptions of value between free and very cheap products, and that this has the side effect of splitting the market into two submarkets: free, and not-free.

I have little to criticize here as far as the economics described--it certainly matches with what I learned in college and at the World Bank. But I think once again Anderson is missing the point. As he admittedly notes (and then hurriedly discounts), the things that consumers consider "free" often actually aren't: they're paid for from subsidies, from higher prices elsewhere, or as loss-leaders for other revenue channels. Sometimes they don't even meet that low bar: one sidebar describes the SampleLab store in Japan, which gives away "free" products--to members who have paid a monthly admittance fee. That's not "free" except as a marketing slogan (or as a scam), something which seems to be a trend in this book.

Indeed, "free" is a flexible concept for Anderson, here and elsewhere. Sometimes it's trade and barter. Sometimes it's charity or communal labor. In one case, it's the royalties charged by ASCAP to radio stations for recorded music--sure, they're a non-zero, non-trivial monetary sum, but they're "low enough for radio stations to prosper." So they're free to an unknown number of significant digits, I guess. In fact, as long as you don't charge the consumer a direct, per-transaction cost, no matter what else might be entailed or who else might have to pay, Anderson's happy to call it "free." For someone who started a previous chapter with the dictionary definition of the term, he takes a lot of liberties with it.

The connection between chapters three and four is to tie abundance to null pricing, which I'm guessing Anderson will parlay into a discussion of broadband data and its levelling effects. There's a strong insinuation--although I'm not sure it's actually explicitly stated--that one has a causal link to the other. There may well be a correlation: abundant things are often free, and free things will often be consumed in abundance given ample supply. But that's all there is. Correlation is not causation. Abundance does not necessarily equal free, nor vice versa. And while Anderson uses the phrase "too cheap to meter" here for the first time (and probably not the last), he doesn't seem to consider that even extremely cheap products incur costs that may not scale efficiently--bandwidth, shipping, environmental impact, etc. You can't get something for nothing, in other words, but you can value something as nothing. So far, I'm not sure that Anderson fully understands the distinction.

I hadn't intended to spend so much space on these introductory chapters. In the next (much larger) section of the book, "Digital Free," we'll hopefully be able to move a little faster as Anderson shifts onto safer ground: the Internet and new media. He's certainly shown that he knows his way around one website, at least.

Future - Present - Past