“Free” to Be You and Me: Chris Anderson’s New Book

Seth, Malcolm and Chris are in a bit of a dust up. The kvetch is about Chris Anderson’s brand new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, July 2009). I’m talking about guru and author Seth Godin, author and frequent contributor to the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell and Chris Anderson, author and editor at Wired magazine.

These three gentlemen stand at the pinnacle of thought leadership in American business. But as Chris Anderson points out in his latest book, the value of “authority” is rapidly eroding. I guess top-down paternalism ain’t what it used to be. As seismic shifts transform our culture, part of what is needed, now more than ever in business, is perspective. While Seth, Malcom and Chris have plenty of insight, I’m not sure it lends fresh perspective. It’s time for fresh voices. New faces. And dare I say it–a woman or two–to point a new way forward.

In March, I got the chance to sit down with Chris Anderson during the SXSW Interactive Conference. We talked about the concept of “free” in terms of broader social trends. I had read his manuscript on the plane and was impressed with his factual and dispassionate rendering of an otherwise crazy idea–namely, that you can make money giving things away.

I asked Chris if the style of the blogosphere, where writers pour their hearts out to their audiences, would eventually bleed into business writing. Will business writers ever unlace their wing tips? He sat erect and spat out a “No!” As he saw it, personal narrative is subjective, unreliable and, frankly, lazy. I see.

The posture and “voice” of authority remains resolutely unchanged, I remember thinking. It derives from a set of values dominated by a masculine, rational/technological orientation. Yet Anderson himself redefines business reality giving top-down authority has-been status. He plots out how “free” is changing everything. But not some things, I guess.

“Free” is a truly revolutionary concept. Anderson has balls for taking it on. But the book labors under the weight of a traditional approach to economics, marketing and business, influenced by a historical production-oriented bias. In such a realm, the tendency is to view “reality,” “information” or “knowledge” as concrete, absolute, real and immutable. In short, Anderson has taken on a bold idea, but the treatment of it stems from an absolutist position.

Meanwhile, the culture is adjusting to embrace a broader spectrum of values. Scratch the surface of the hopeful idealist of the rising RenGen–renaissance generation–whose job it is to detoxify a poisoned world and you’ll expose a deep cultural longing to feel connected. To join with something larger than themselves and to each other. It’s partly spiritual and partly social.

Connection, warmth, immediacy, humor, authenticity, intensity hold allure in the emerging culture. It’s all about the intensity of experience—visceral, gritty, and emotional. In today’s marketplace, facts and data remain on the B-list until they can cozy up to A-list types who tell self-effacing stories and reveal hard-won personal truths. So far, the masters of this style of communication have been female. (Although male bloggers are beginning to emulate them.)

The future of business will be forged by people emotionally in touch enough to realize that the customer wants to recover a lost sense of soulful connection. Be it through creative self-expression (blogging, Etsy ), forming social groups (Facebook, MySpace) or forging links to lifestyles that help people transition meaningfully between their digital and analogue worlds by establishing customs and rituals that transfer meaning (Apple, Starbucks).

Chris Anderson has written a brave book. It will be talked about. But will it change the fundamentals of business? Malcolm Gladwell thinks not. Why? Because there’s no there there in “free.” Seth Godin throws his hands up and says, “Hey, business is messy right now.”

I say, if we are serious about addressing our world-wide problems and growing new enterprises, we must once and for all commit ourselves to alternative ideas, new voices and thought leaders whose experiences stretch beyond the Stanford Business School or the Ivys. Intriguing as it was to follow the wrestling match between the triumvirate this week, it made me long for an Oprah in the business community!