Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and now Free: The Future of a Radical Price is out promoting his book. (I know, I know, the irony is too tempting isn’t it? No the book is not free, and neither are his speaking engagements. But I digress…) Now with a review in the Times Book Review last Sunday by Virginia Postrel, his ideas are being bandied about a lot.
Anderson is very smart. I thought The Long Tail offered brilliant insights into how the internet has shifted business paradigms, models and best practices. I haven’t read Free yet but certainly intend to.
But even without having read the book, interviews with Anderson have piqued my curiosity. “People are making lots of money charging nothing,” says Anderson. “Not nothing for everything, but nothing for enough that we have essentially created an economy as big as a good-sized country around the price of $0.00.”
Although Anderson is writing about business models and for profit entities, I can’t help but compare his thinking with one of my favorite books, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde. I have referenced Hyde’s work before (his other book, Trickster as well as his poetry here on Slow Muse, and articles about his thinking on Slow Painting) and continue to recommend The Gift as a book that every artist and maker should read.
Hyde’s territory is not the same as Anderson’s, but I keep putting the two of them in the same room in my head, hoping they get past the small talk and into some real content. There’s something going on here, a parallelism worth exploring regarding giving for free, gifting to others, connectedness between stakeholders and community.
Hyde gives a historical overview of how gifts and gifting have impacted the inner life concerns like emotions, feelings, spirituality. In Hyde’s model of the gift economy, a gift can be tangible or immaterial (like a talent, or teaching). He writes, “I have hoped…to speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture. I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.”
In describing a “gift economy” Hyde demonstrates how its purpose is to build and strengthen human connection and relationships. That is a very different set of goals from the market economy that Anderson is addressing. Hyde makes the distinction between the commerce of gifting, which is rooted in the “erotic” (as in bringing together, the power of attraction) and the commerce of the market economy, which is founded on “logos” (logic, distinction.)
In the market economy, the hoarding (or “saving”) of goods is one way to build wealth. In Hyde’s gift economy, the opposite is true. Wealth actually decreases with hoarding since it is the circulation of gifts within a community that results in an “increase”— of connections, the strengthening of relationships, and of community. For Hyde, the circulation and perpetual flow of gifts is the key.
Anderson’s concepts are about redistributing the profiteering. He talks of cross-subsidies, “shifting money around from product to product, person to person, between now and later, or into non-monetary markets and back out again.” But in all this cross subsidizing, in all this money that comes in here and goes out there, goes up then down, in and around, isn’t something else happening here?
Worth sitting with, it seems to me.
Hopefully there will be more on this later.
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