Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson
I loved "Free" for 3 reasons:
Reason 1: Anderson is a terrific storyteller. Free is one of those books where you learn some, think some, and have fun during the ride. The main argument for Free is that the economics of digital goods pushes the price of these goods to their marginal cost of production, which in the case of digital copies is close enough to zero to set that price at free. Further, the price of free enables all sorts of businesses and opportunities, providing opportunities for new business models, profits and services.
Reason 2: The growth of free has all sorts of implications for higher education. Nowadays a lifelong learner can receive a wonderful education from Web content ranging from TED talks to lectues on iTunesU and YouTube/EDU. Educational content is now free. This forces us in higher education to rethink our own value propositions and where we exist in a digital economy built around abundance of quality curricular and lecture content as opposed the scarcity model that traditional lecturing/courses is built upon.
Reason 3: Anderson made the unabridged audio edition of Free available for free on Audible and some other outlets. This price encouraged a bunch of us at Dartmouth to read the book together, generated some great discussions and debate. Having the book freely available to our community proved to be an excellent argument for the library overcoming the scarcity of digital books to have them available to our community. I admire Anderson to no end for putting his money where his mouth is and offering the digital copy at the price of production. I'd gladly pay more in Educause conference fees to listen Anderson keynote one of our conferences.
Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell
Cheap is the perfect companion to Free. Or maybe the antidote to Free. Where Anderson sees a bright future for free, Ruppel Shell reminds us of the high cost of cheap. These costs range from the loss of decent paying jobs for producers to the environmental damage that allows cheap furniture, food, and manufacturing goods to come to market. We probably didn't need one more book on the dangers of the cheap industrial food complex, but Ruppel Shell puts trends in food in the larger context of the migration away from quality across the consumer basket. The chapter on Ikea alone is worth the price of admission. My only quibble is that perhaps the author over-sold her case.
We have realized some benefits from the cost of some things dropping, from computers to bandwidth (see Anderson), her case would have been strengthened by an exploration of cheap done right. Still, this Free and Cheap should be read together, the first book getting us drunk on the limitless future and the second book sobering us up on the high costs that we are all paying.
You know those questions that go "if you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?". Well...I think I'd choose Simon Schama. Or maybe a roadtrip. Schama is one of those historians who both have something to say about how we live now and the depth of knowledge to ground his thinking by weaving stories from our past. One part sociology, one part history, all very smart and engaging. The American Future should be read in conjunction with watching the BBC documentary of the same title, narrated by Schama. Reading the book while watching the documentary does wonderful things for the brain in terms of reinforcing the concepts and stories with images. It helps the stories stick.
Schama's basic premise is that the election of Obama represents the culmination of an American journey towards our nation struggling to live up to our founding myths. Only American could produce the horror of the civil war, segregation and institutional racism while holding the promise of electing an African American to the highest office. This American Future beautifully chronicles our redemption, placing the biggest story of our times firmly within our American narrative.
Jim Kim, MD/PhD is the 17th President of Dartmouth College, and with Paul Farmer the protagonist of Kidder's tale of a couple of doctor anthropologists who succeeded in changing how the public health community thinks about caring for the poorest of the poor. I read this book for a Dartmouth book club, the best sort of experience as we were in part reading into the future values and culture of our institution (as college President's deeply and truly set the tone). We came away with something like wonder that Dartmouth would have the foresight and creativity to recruit someone like Dr. Kim who has been so willing to challenge the status quo.
Farmer and Kim, and the organization they started Partners in Health, were at best a marginalized group running on a suspect ideology within the public health industry. The fact that they were able to change the thinking of how to treat TB patients (basically by demonstrating that the very poor can follow drug regimens), coupled with the success Dr. Kim had in bringing down the price of a range of medications for the poor, is truly an amazing and inspirational tale. This book makes the best possible case that Dr. Kim is the right person at the right time to challenge the accepted wisdoms in higher education and on our campus and lead our institution into the future.
This book could have been called "Why Ray Kurzweil is an idiot and the singularity is not near". Seidensticker sets out to inject some reality into utopian fantasies of a world of abundance driven by technological change. His main thesis is that technological change of the late 20th century (the computer, the Internet, etc.) has had no where near the impact on society and individual lives as either the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century, or the introduction of technologies in the 19th century such as the railroad, the telegraph, and the telephone. Even compared to 100 years ago when both the automobile went into mass production and Wright brothers first began to fly today technologies only marginally alter the social order.
The second argument is that technological change is not exponential, rather it is mostly linear and built upon years of previous technologies. Moore's law only has narrow implications to the digital world, with exponential drops in price and increases in capacity for storage, memory or bandwidth only filtering down into smaller changes in our lives. I think that Seidensticker over sells his case, and therefore his main arguments are weakened. Yes, we need to place todays technical changes within their historical contexts, but it is also true that the people living in the late 19th century were seldom fully aware of the impacts that their technologies would have on their lives and communities.
In the 15 or so years I've been in the labor market I've seen technology completely alter how we think about and construct education, and I'm sure that most people in their own professional lives would say the same thing. While I disagree with Seidensticker's main conclusions I still recommend the book, as we need to make sure that we ground our visions of the future in both skepticism and knowledge of our history.