Chris Anderson & The Freetards: Reach for your gun, but stay pragmatic

One of the great things about listening to Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, at the UCLAN Journalism Leaders evening a few weeks ago was the pleasure of witnessing that huge temperamental incompatibility that exists between the news industry and the software industry.

At UCLAN, Anderson was plugging his forthcoming book Free, which is largely based on this article published in February.

It seems to me that Anderson’s much-trumpeted thesis is little more than a series of riffs on a well-known piece of software economics: the near-zero marginal cost of incremental digital production.

The idea has been knocking around for the past two decades — ever since packaged software companies realized that they could make super-profits because they didn’t need to purchase raw materials or invest in machine tools.

If I sound a bit blasé, forgive me. I’ve followed the software industry for over a decade. I still buy books like Anderson’s, but successive booms and busts have inoculated me against the techno-utopianism in which he — and large parts of Silicon Valley — specialize.

The software industry itself is chaotic, protean — and fascinating. This is an industry that transforms other industries. Intellectually, however, it breeds a drearily predictable form of determinism that calls to mind Dave Spart.

(Not that this heroic name is applied to Anderson and his ilk. Instead, we need to thank a journalist-blogger who spends his time impersonating Steve Jobs for inventing the word freetard to describe them.)

But if the history of technology diffusion tells us anything, it’s that innovations are frequently adopted in ways that surprise their makers.

In the 1890s, the New York Times forecast that Alexander Graham-Bell’s new invention, the telephone, would be used to “carry music, lectures, and various oral entertainments to all the cities of the East”.

In the late 1990s, meanwhile, it was an article of faith that lots of FTSE-quoted retailers was going to be put out of business by Boo.com and Amazon. The reality turned out to be infinitely more complex and nuanced. Today, the average Briton spends the princeley sum of £213 online every year.

The point here is that the future-gazing of Anderson and his ilk is a fine way to start an argument. It’s a wonderful way to sell books. And if you feel like putting the fear of god into concert hall owners, retailers and journalists, there’s nothing better.

But history tells us that the techno-utopians are usually wrong when they predict revolutionary upheaval that’s pre-determined by the features of technology itself. Life is much more contingent and messy than that.

So forgive me if I shy away from singing hymns to a rigidly determined future. (Give me those 2.0 tools and I’ll use them, even love them, but it’s hard to get shouty with the groupthinkers who cry: “Journalism is dead! Long live the journaliste citoyen!”)

By the same token, I don’t really belong on the other side of the fence, either. This is where reflex debunkers like Andrew Keen and Andrew Orlowski live. (No doubt, Ivan Fallon pops around for a cup of tea and a chat every so often. . .)

Accordingly, like a lot of other people, I spend most of my existence shuttling back and forth between the software industry and the news business, trying to knit together some kind of coherent narrative, something practical that works in the here and now (as well as next week, next month).

That’s been the consistent theme behind my efforts at Fullrun for the past five years, where I continue to run a subscription-based news service for people in the technology industry who are trying to understand content — and their peers in the media who are reaching out in the opposite direction. It’s not straightforward. But that’s the fun of it.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing Lisa Williams, founder of Placeblogger and guru of hyperlocal news in the US.

At Mediashift IdeaLab, Williams has identified ten things journalists should know about surviving in a high-tech industry. She writes:

Journalism is becoming a high tech industry, and that means that career norms for journalists are approaching those of high tech workers — shorter job tenures, working for smaller companies, and much more.

That little gem of an argument — that journalism is becoming a high-tech industry — prefaces a load of good advice. Unlike Anderson’s rather predictable meditations on “free”, I really do wish I’d written this myself.

Why? Because it’s pragmatic, not programmatic. Here’s a sample:

“We get laid off when the economy is good, and we get laid off when the economy is bad. . . We don’t even take it personally anymore. . . If you value your sanity, have some savings and don’t take out big mortgages.”

Who knows? Perhaps the Journalism Leaders Programme at UCLAN should make personal finance part of its continuing education programme for the newspaper industry’s digital immigrants. . .

PS: Thanks to Mike Ward, head of the department of journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, and Francois Nel, founding director of the department’s Journalism Leaders Programme for inviting me to Preston to sit on their panel.

Having spent a couple of hours chewing the fat with Francois and the other panelists over dinner, I’d recommend the pragmatism with which they approach the job of educating digital immigrants about working in the software industry.

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