Free by Chris Anderson

2017 July 2

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I had the pleasure today of spending three and a half hours of my precious time (ho ho ho) listening to Wired’s Chris Anderson reading his new book. Not to me personally of course, merely the audiobook of Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The book is along similar lines to his previous book The Long Tail, in which he described the concept which has rapidly become common parlance when talking about modern economics.

I must admit though, that I haven’t read The Long Tail, and I honestly wouldn’t have bothered with Free if it weren’t for one crucial fact: the audiobook was being offered up free, in its entirety via Spotify (to UK users only at this stage).

I like the idea of audiobooks. I love radio. Podcasts. The spoken word. Informative speeches and the like. But I rarely listen to audiobooks. On the odd occasions I have done, it’s been largely as a distraction from having hours to myself – usually when travelling, via train or plane, over long distances. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything got a 13-hour flight last year off to a flying start (sorry). But aside from listening to whole chunks of audiobooks simply as a distraction, their practicality is lost on me. For the most part, I think I’d rather just read the thing.

But as I say: Free isn’t a book I would normally have read. A book which has its roots in web technology and global popular culture, fine – but served as side orders to the main theme of economics? No thanks. My attention span is short enough without bringing economics into it.

freecoverBut Anderson’s book is far more accessible than that. He delves into the history of this concept of ‘free’, the development of it in relation to globalisation and mass culture, right up to the inevitable examples of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails giving away their music and smashing paradigms like ants underfoot.

Of course, writing about an audiobook as I am, I can’t talk about the book as purely text on a page: what I experienced was three hours of a man telling me what he thinks about something. And Anderson’s pace is relentless at times. Granted I shouldn’t have listened to it in almost one go, but I felt like I wanted to, to see what conclusions would be drawn from real-world scenarios that I knew a bit about already. But I must admit to tuning out occasionally – like I say, it is ostensibly a book about world economics…

Overall though, the book is engaging and at times thought-provoking. The hoped-for conclusions aren’t as concrete as one may have hoped; Free is more of a brief history and state of the union than an earth-shattering statement of intent. Having Anderson narrate his own book is a good decision: his tone is fresh and he holds your attention most of the time. I was occasionally left wondering where the line is drawn between hearing a speech, having a (peculiarly one-sided) conversation, and the traditional model of an audiobook. As the delivery methods merge, the line begins to blur.

But I can’t talk about Free without making mention to the controversy surrounding some of Anderson’s sources – or rather, his failure to cite their authors. In the past week or two, literature journal the Virginia Quarterly Review picked up on and reported several cases of what it believed to be plagiarism in the book. In a blog entry, direct comparisons were shown between Anderson’s text and Wikipedia articles in what amounted to a fairly damning indictment. In Anderson’s defence, he was quick to answer these calls, and has subsequently given his side of the story, resulting in a PDF of citations and references being made available. These should arguably have been included in the original book, but they weren’t and Anderson has put forward a fair explanation.

Finally, the main crux of how I ended up listening to Free should be mentioned. Astute PULP readers will know that I’ve talked about Spotify before. Spotify is pretty well-known to anybody who gets their musical fix from the internet: it is software which acts like an iTunes library that includes the vast majority of music available to buy online through other services. You fire it up, search for an album, and within seconds the music is playing. Downsides include only having access to music while tethered to a broadband connection (natch, although this is set to change) and that, while free, Spotify pops audio adverts into the playback stream – a 30-second radio-style ad every six songs or so. A premium subscription is available for £10 a month which strips your listening of any such interruptions, but at this stage it seems that most users are happy to put up with them in exchange for free access to the music.

I’m a big fan of Spotify and have been using it for almost a year, but today’s addition of Anderson’s audiobook is a new innovation – audibooks have until now been absent from Spotify’s library. But it worked beautifully – dividing into chapters allows the listener to take breaks (or to share specific chapters with other users), and the audio quality matches up with Spotify’s free service – ~160kbps. And this is important: one of the negatives of audiobooks bought online (at least for me) is their audio quality. An audiobook bought from iTunes is far lower quality (32kbps I believe), and this really detracts from the experience. The reasoning behind this choice could be said to be down to the delivery – audiobooks can be huge, and downloading ‘CD-quality’ audio files that number many tens of hours could be off-putting, as could fitting the thing on a portable player. But given the Moore’s Law evolution of connection speeds and iPod capacity, surely these factors are now null and void. Heck, iTunes even sells movies and whole TV series in bandwidth-destroying HD now.

I digress. Spotify’s presentation of Free was very satisfying and was completely in line with its much-vaunted music service and if this is a sign of things to come, I expect my enjoyment of audiobooks to improve tenfold. It has my blessings and I look forward to more being added in the near future. And Free itself was an interesting book, continuing Chris Anderson’s mission of deconstructing world economics for the 21st century.

Of course, the irony of listening to a book about free culture via a free service isn’t lost on me…

Chris Anderson’s Free was published in the UK on June 25th and is available now via Amazon; it will be available online free as an ebook and unabridged audiobook from July 9th. The audio version is available free to UK users now via Spotify.

Paul Capewell