Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Malcolm in the Muddle

If you’re as big a Malcolm Gladwell fan as I am, then his recent essay/review of Chris Anderson’s new book, “Free,” in The New Yorker probably left you as confused as me. What I’ve always admired most about Malcolm is his ability—his gift, really—for decoding our time. He tells us a story with great specificity, detail, and charm, and then, after we think we know what the story is about, he tells us what it’s really about. Like a journalist/semiotician, he looks through the facts as they appear to see what is behind them, what is more true than the facts themselves. Or at least that’s what he does in his own essays in The New Yorker and in his three best-selling books.
But his review of Chris Anderson’s book is almost the opposite: he is stunningly, stubbornly literal. He takes Chris to task for his writing style, calling him out for paragraphs that offer a “. . . reassuring arc from ‘bloodbath’ to ‘salvation.’” He makes fun of the fact that Chris capitalizes the word “Free”—saying parenthetically “(Anderson honors it with a capital”) as if that were a cheap writerly trick Chris is trying to pull. And perhaps strangest of all, he argues against the notion of free by pointing out that electrical utilities will always have “plants and power lines.” Information doesn’t want to be free, Malcolm argues: look at the success that the Wall Street Journal is having charging for its online version--as if that were the defining case in the rapidly failing world of newspapers. All in all, Malcolm concludes, there’s not much of value in a book called “Free.”
Now unlike my friend Seth Godin, I can’t say categorically that Malcolm is “wrong.” For one thing, I haven’t read Chris’ book; for another, I don’t think the debate we’re in right now between the emerging economy of the web and ideas, and the mainstream economy of print and things is about right or wrong. I think it’s more of a Rubik’s Cube of a puzzle that challenges us to think creatively about business, management, value creation, risk, reward, and a host of questions we used to think we knew the answers to. As we think outloud, we're looking for a new way to click these pieces together so companies can make money and consumers can have delightful products and services--without clinging to the rapidly failing models of the past. The game is afoot,and it's up to nimble-minded writers and thinkers to try to figure it out.
Which is what troubles me about Malcolm’s review. He doesn’t seem to be dealing with a very interesting question in an interesting way—and that seems very un-Malcolm-like.
A few elements of Chris’ argument, as presented by Malcolm (since I confess again that I haven’t yet read the book) seem hard to deny. We are dealing with an economy in which it is now commonplace to charge, not for the thing itself, but for the ideas or attributes that surround the thing—whether it’s an experience, a relationship, an ancillary product, or a memory. We are witnessing a transition from a business environment where there was a clear link between price and value to one where that linkage is much more tenuous and open to negotiation. We are seeing a de-coupling of what used to be a clear connection between the price of something and the true cost of something--not to mention the real value of the thing. It seems almost obtuse not to recognize that the old time-honored relationships are eroding and something new, different, and as yet not completely formed is emerging. To hear Malcolm think out loud about that in the form of a review of Chris’ book would be worth, well, a lot more than free. There are serious questions that need grappling with:
Where are we in this transition? Who’s managing it well, and who poorly? Where are there signs of more evolved economic creatures that give us a sense of the shape of the future? What will happen to the magazines, newspapers, radio stations, music producers, banks, airlines, retailers, that fail to make the necessary adaptive moves? How soon and how inevitably will it happen--and what, if anything, needs to be done in anticipation? Where’s the line for consumers: if “free” goes away once the old enterprises go away, will we see consumers agree to pay for what used to be free? Or will we end up in an economy of cross-subsidies and transfer payments? Who will create the next version of transactions—consumers or producers? And how will that negotiation be structured? Rather than simply denying its existence, where can we catch of glimpse of this future as it emerges, and what rules can we imagine that will help make the transition more manageable?
Finding the deep questions that lie behind the facts in any situation is what Malcolm does better than anyone. Fads aren’t just fads, he tells us—they happen because phenomena have tipping points, and we can learn how to manipulate them. So it is with “Blink” and “Outliers”: things aren’t what they seem—there’s a deeper, smarter, more fascinating way to look at things than what appears on the surface. I think that’s also Chris’ message: price points, transactions, economic and business principles aren’t what’s happening when money does or doesn’t change hands. Something else is changing, and it goes even deeper than the price point: “free” isn’t a price—it’s a way of thinking. "Free" isn't a number--it's an emerging economic concept. It’s actually a very Malcolm-like argument, or so it would seem.
So why the literal-minded review?
Maybe Chris has simply written a not-very-good book. I don’t know. Malcolm didn’t care much for it; neither did the New York Times reviewer. So maybe Malcolm’s literal-minded review is just a polite way of saying, “Sorry, this book didn’t work for me.”
Or maybe Malcolm’s just getting tired of other writers doing less well what he does so well: after all, he did pioneer a whole genre of sociological business books that have catchy one-word titles (I think if he had it to do again, he’d have named “The Tipping Point” simply “Tip!”). But as a recent piece in The New York Times pointed out, successful book titles inevitably spawn imitators, and we’ve seen a spate of one word titles in the business/sociology category. And Malcolm is a master—if not the master—at catching the moment in a bottle and then deciphering it for us. If his review is simply a way of firing a warning shot at others who want to play on this field, a signal that he’s going to maintain his position and enforce his standards, well, that’s fair enough for me.
I just wish he’d given us a more Malcolm-like take on the whole category of the emerging threads of business and the economy. For my money, the debate over how the Web will shake out across industries and businesses is still one of the most interesting ones around; what we will do to hang on to what works of the old rule book while writing a new one is a huge unknown; how we will manage to step out of the "either/or" past into the "both/and" future is a new category for business discussion. Right now, the field is open and the thoughts are, well, free.

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