Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

What Happens When Things Get Free?
Ethan Zuckerman, 22 Oct 06

Chris Anderson - Mr. Long Tail, editor of Wired Magazine - makes a great decision here at Pop!tech: assuming that everyone in the audience has either read The Long Tail or knows the argument, he gives a different talk: “What Happens When Things Get Free?” (It covers much of the same ground as the book, but draws a different narrative through many of the same examples.)

He starts with a photo of Dr. Carver Mead. Mead started thinking about what happens as semiconductors get cheap to the point where they’re free. The answer is, “you should waste them.” This insight led to VLSI - Very Large Scale Integration - chips that included thousands of transitors, not just single ones.

Alan Kay figured out what you might do with these plentiful, free transistors - be wasteful on the screen. If processing power is abundant, you can make pictures on the screen - icons - instead of forcing people into the command line. This helped make computers beautiful, fun and useful to many more people.

We’re moving from economies of scarcity to “abundant economics”. Hard drive storage has become abundant to the point where GMail is able to give users 2 gigabytes of mail, instead of the 2 megabytes Hotmail used to give you. “Your mailbox is full? What was that about?”

Broadcast media is a product of scarcity. Since there’s a limited set of channels, you have to be very discriminating about what gets out, releasing only things that have a very broad appeal. The emergence of YouTube and others shows what happens when there’s an infinite set of channels available.

3D printing means that, for the first time in history, complexity is free. “What beautiful, extravagant, and unnecesarily complex things will we make now that we can?”

Chris runs through a quick set of examples of the move from economies of scarcity to economies to abundance: Walmart’s ability to offer three colors of Kitchenaid blender, versus 57 on the Amazon site; Blockbuster versus Netflix; Tower Records versus iTunes and peer to peer networks.

He compares broadcast television to lonelygirl15 - no one focus-grouped it, no one greenlighted it - it was a project by indie filmmakers in their apartment, who did it because they could… and it now gets more viewership than some broadcast tv shows.

Chris walks us through the most linked sites on the Internet according to Technorati, pointing out that the four “punks” behind BoingBoing are now more influential than Fortune, Reuters or the Chicago Tribune. (He doesn’t mention that they’re more influential for the small set of bloggers, not for everyone on the planet…)

Conde Nast, which publishes Wired, is all about the economy of scarcity - Chris tells us he’s trying to produce “a perfect faberge egg of a product” - ad pages are expensive, printing and shipping are expensive. As an editor, Chris needs to bet on what’s going to be popular and immortalize those decisions on dead trees for 650,000 people. He’s excited by the idea that the Wired website might work like Digg, letting people “scramble the eggs”, picking what’s most exciting and moving those stories to the top.

He walks us through some of the business changes that happen as we move from scarcity to abundance:
- In the past, we built business cases based on ROI. Now we build it and build the business afterwards.?- In the past, “everything is forbidden unless it’s permitted.” Now everything is permitted unless forbidden.?- Scarcity is about paternalism, a decision that an editor knows what’s best. Abundance is about egalitarianism.?- Scarcity is top-down, abundance is bottom-up. Instead of command and control, it’s out of control.

Chris tells us that he’s trying a new management philosophy - “I do whatever my interns tell me to do.” This is leading him towards carrying out book signings in Second Life. He doesn’t know if it’s really a good use of his time… but it’s what the grassroots are telling him to do.
He closes with an excellent viral video, The Day of the Long Tail - always a good thing when you coin a term successful enough that folks will make videos for you.

Bookmark and Share


This article appears to be broken. i get a 404 page.

Posted by: Andrew on 22 Oct 06

well, never mind. oops

Posted by: Andrew on 22 Oct 06

Dear World Changers,

Let me see if I have this right-- Wal Mart has 3 different color blenders, Amazon has 58 different color blenders-- this is good? And this is on a green website?

I just wonder if anyone has done the math on the hidden costs of all this techno whiz bang "things want to be free" buzz?

For instance -- no transistor is really free -- you have done stories in the past on the huge toxic waste from high tech -- hidden in China, washed up in Africa etc... why not link them?

I think capitalists want thing to be free or nearly free -- but they have been against messy things like unions, universal health care and other real costs that someone is going to pay for sometime.

I live in Seattle -- and just this weekend read of 4 more orcas missing and presumed dead in Puget Sound -- main suspect? toxic waste that is leaching out of industrialized high tech Seattle metro area into the Sound and killing them off.

So a Conde Naste editor goes on about how tax subsidized and ecologically unaccountable businesses like Apple, Netflix, Google are what?

Conde Naste ? What is there paper source?


I recommend you take your book tour to Detroit. Get to see "things just want to be free" up close in social consciousness. There you will find that a business mindset that "just wanted to be free" of labor costs and responsibilities to families has done to a great city --Detroit doesn't look like it now but it was a Seattle and San Francisco of the 1940's and 50s. It helped stop Hitler. It helped us win WW 2. Now look at it -- Colored people, skyscrapers, and everything! Just no high paying jobs. No hope.

Economies of abundance are possible -- but if you were really for it-- you would be promoting redistribution of wealth inverse to the Bush formula of working people subsidizing the 1% who have raked in all the money in the past 20 years.

Things don't want to be free -- things don't want anything. People want to be free -- free to create, to contribute, to inspire, and to have meaningful work. People want to make decent livings, get living wages. Not have to go bankrupt to get health care. Women wnat to be free to walk around their neighborhood at night without fear of attack.

Those are my priorities. And I will tell you up front-- none of them are free -- they all cost. But they are worth the fight.

Hope this qualifies as useful letter to editor.

best fishes,

Timothy Colman, poster sherpa
Good Nature Publishing Co.

Posted by: Timothy Colman on 22 Oct 06

Whoa, Timothy. I've been reading this site for a long while now, and I really don't think it's fair to say that the writers and editors support economic inequality a la Bush.

That sites like Amazon can offer far more variety than Wal-Mart is interesting. It may not be a very good thing when it comes to different colour blenders, but the ecological footprint of e-commerce is far lower than Wal-Mart's. And such diversity may be a sign of things to come in more areas of our lives. It's worth thinking about! :)

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 22 Oct 06

I think the ideas of "mass customization" that we talked about in the 90s are finally coming to fruition. There is indeed a long tail for products, and a lot of reasons why we might want to support a choice of things like color. it's easy to dispose of a boring, bland product, but one that has been customized to your desires becomes special to you, less disposable, really. That can become a very green thing indeed.

Posted by: donna on 22 Oct 06

I'm not sure I'd agree with "complexity is free". That seems far to simplistic to me. I would have preferred "complexity is not necessarily more costly".

Posted by: csven on 22 Oct 06

The terms 'free' and 'waste' are being used in a precise manner by Anderson. Unfortunately, they have some evocative meanings (ie 'money' and 'pollution'), and you need to be careful in how you interpret them.

As Timothy and csven point out, the examples used may be fault, having hidden costs which come out of the woodwork if you try to 'waste' supposedly free products.

However, the examples weren't the point of the talk. They were only there to illustrate that economies of abundance and scarcity need to be handled differently.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 22 Oct 06

What I watched of Pop!Tech looked so mid-90s, all that technological utopianism and the dreamworld is just around the corner!!!

Yeah, right, and tell me again why I still don't have fiber to my home?

The question is not when things get free but what things will be freeing. So I guess I line up with Timothy Coleman.

I do small scale solar and find that there's absolutely no understanding of the simple concept of battery switching which could be extremely freeing. I don't see it even in such thoughtful groups as Solar Electric Light Fund.

Posted by: gmoke on 23 Oct 06

As Tony notes, "free" and "waste" are loaded terms. Another, more clumsy, way to ask the question might be:

"What happens when a resource so affordable that we can use enough of it to make something great instead of something half-assed?"

I design buildings. I like to use space efficiently, sometimes to a fault. Recently, my business partner looked at a plan of mine and said, "If you make that room 2 feet bigger, it will be worth building." Same idea.

Posted by: David Foley on 23 Oct 06

This article makes me happy. I am delighted with the connections it makes between technology and freedom. No doubt, those connections can be undermined and reversed, but I'm overjoyed to see Chris embracing them.
We have a saying in the animal rights crowd. If we can't be inhumane to animals, we can't be inhumane to people either. If information wants to be free (it does) and things want to be free (they do), then you better believe that living things want to be free.
Timothy, thanks for grounding the discussion in context there. Still, I would argue that the failures in Detroit are due to the old scarcity-control model of doing things. Jobs were concentrated into the hands of a few wealthy individuals who acquired major government incentives to leave. How can Detroit take advantage of this new model to reinvent itself?

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 23 Oct 06

That is the question Lyle, How can we take advantage of this new model to reinvent everything? Starting with a model of scarcity and moving to a model of abundance is tough. Once you make it though, new possibilities emerge.

I love Chris' new management philosophy - doing what the interns tell him. I'd wager that almost any CEO (or manager, or elected official) that followed the advice of the masses would succeed by design. The wisdom of the many should be applied abundantly...

Posted by: Daniel N Smith Jr on 24 Oct 06

What source of energy exactly is going to power all this "abundance?" Certainly not oil in 20 years, hydrogen is an energy storage media, wind and solar are fine but I doubt can be deployed on a large enough scale for an "abundance" based society. Coal, and biofuels have a massive C02 problem. Perhaps these problems can be overcome but I'd be interested in people making real concrete progress on these issues before we talk about a pie in the sky society overflowing with wealth and opportunity.

Further if it's done under the current model of corporate golbalization then only 10% of the global population will benefit tremendously while 90% suffers. In sum I'm a pessimist about the future like the first poster, perhaps not coincidently I live outside Detroit as the first poster mentioned so I do see how our American) society treats it's losers.

Posted by: Matt Rogers on 24 Oct 06

Free for whom, and what? I kind of agree with Tommy Coleman (I am late in reading this site and someone might be saying the same things) ...

Everyone is looking for cheap (goods from China), or FREE (such as those internet thing) ... then look at what we do with cheap goods from China? There is a reason for cheap -- apart from labour issues in CHina, look at the cost to ship from China to US or Europe, or CEOs and top officials FLYing around the world, stay in expensive hotels, eat expensive meals ... point is, who gets the cheap goods and who loaded up with rich food, fun thing and most of all $$$$$$??? Free this and free that on internet ... look at what it is doing to me (perhaps to you as well) ... is my time 'free', could my time be better use some where ???

Just like accountants and economists, the figures coming up mostly fit for a spread-sheet.

Perhaps time to think of HUMAN costs? Or GREEN-costs?

Posted by: cindy on 26 Oct 06

Matt makes an interesting point: "What source of energy exactly is going to power all this 'abundance?'"

Ethan asserts, "complexity is free."

These two things run counter to each other. Complexity is a function of energy, and what has made complexity essentially free is our essentially free energy source.

We will see decreasing complexity as we slide down the back side of the fossil energy pulse. And then, all these "free" things will become very costly, when compared to essential needs like food, water, and shelter.

So live it up. Things are as "free" as they're gonna get!

Posted by: Jan Steinman on 28 Oct 06

Ethan asserts, "complexity is free."

A correction - I don't assert any such thing. Chris Anderson, in a talk that I attempted to transcribe for the benefit of anyone who wasn't in the audience, asserts that complexity is free.

The lastest series of posts on Worlchanging from me are all taken from my conference notes at the Pop!Tech conference. They don't neccesarily represent my views, just my attempt to accurately transcribe the presentations taking place on stage.

Posted by: Ethan on 30 Oct 06

Every thing is connected. Awareness is communication. As in the creation of homeopathic remedies and samauri sword blades stirring creates potency and hammering out and folding over each hammered sheet again and again creates a blade of strength and micro crystaline quality. The more everyone is aware of everyone than every thing will be available to everyone in pricisely the optimun relationship. Unlimited connections are possible and from each connection unlimited creative possibilities emerge. Infinite sets enfolding unlimited sets. I venture to say that chaos is merely unre-cognized connectedness and that freedom is grounded in the unlimited ability to create into this unlimitedness. Complexity is all that.

Posted by: Shanti Michaelle Carter on 11 Nov 06



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg