Paul Krugman has an interesting column on the future of publishing, in which he notes (citing Esther Dyson) that in a digital world where copying is easy and perhaps unstoppable, electronic books will be given away for free in order to promote the sales of other goods and services.
I am a great admirer of Krugman, but I don’t think this column on publishing is as astute as his comments on, say, health care and Social Security.
What Krugman doesn’t reflect on is “the trouble with free.” That trouble is precisely what John Perry Barlow (who apparently gave the idea to Esther Dyson) saw from the other end of the telescope: that rather than selling copyrighted works, many authors and artists will use their work to promote other things. The classic example is tickets to Grateful Dead concerts. My concern is that not all content should be promotional. It will affect the nature, and the integrity, of the content.
Let’s be clear that I am not saying that all free content is corrupt, nor am I opposed to free content strategies, nor, for that matter, do I have any real gripes with advertising, promotion, or market capitalism. I do, however, like to know what a person’s agenda is.
A trip years ago to Epcot Center was chilling: an entire park dedicated to promote the images of corporations and governments. Thus the China pavilion included a video noting (ahem) that China extended from Manchuria to . . . Tibet. Well, I guess that’s the price you pay for going to the China pavilion: you hear the Chinese version of the history of Tibet.
For some content, the mechanisms of the marketplace can support editorial integrity. This is the principle behind Consumer Reports. For this category of content, the contract is, You pay for content on its own terms, not because you are being nudged to purchase something else. There is a virtue to this, though this implied contract does not apply to all publications.
Thus, the trouble with free: content that is free is free of everything except the agenda of the sponsor. In the world of politics, we call this propaganda.