I realized of late that I am more a fan of Malcolm Galdwell’s reviews than his articles. It’s possible I’ve even poked fun of Gladwellian articles in the past (“I Dream in Malcolm Gladwell“). But oh boy did I enjoy his recent review of Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Anderson, the editor of Wired, puts forth an economic argument about the digital age — all information wants to be free; all info in the digital age shall thus be free — based on an impoverished concept of technology. In “Priced to Sell,” Gladwell handily calls him out for it.
Anderson’s primary argument is based on this presumed iron law of the digital age: “In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win.” Gladwell puts Anderson’s wishful thinking (and empirically unsupported claim) into a consistent lineage of technological utopians. That nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter,” Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, said in the 1950s, was misplaced because Strauss conceived of nuclear energy only as the fuel. He didn’t bring to bear the full components of the technological system called nuclear energy. He chose one aspect of the system and allowed it to stand in for the whole (not considering, for example, infrastructure, distribution, maintenance, business models, disposal, operation, etc.). His claims for public policy and, in his extended comments, world peace, rested on that limited conception of nuclear energy technology. So too Chris Anderson, who makes the same fundamental error: conceiving of “technology” (in his case, “digital information”) as a singular thing.
As a good half century of scholarship in the history of technology and technology studies has found, technologies are systems, not isolated artifacts. Basing utopian visions or economic predictions or public policies on the impoverished view of technology will always be wrong. And dangerous. As Gladwell concludes his review, “The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.”