Arguing About Free and the Future

The hype continues to build around Chris Anderson’s upcoming book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Malcolm Gladwell’s review “Priced to Sell: Is free the future?” in the New Yorker rubbed me the wrong way. Apparently, it rubbed Seth Godin the wrong way, too. In his response, Malcolm is Wrong, he speaks plainly so that no one can misunderstand:

[Malcolm’s] first argument that makes no sense is, “should we want free to be the future?”

Who cares if we want it? It is.

The second argument that makes no sense is, “how will this new business model support the world as we know it today?”

Who cares if it does? It is. It’s happening. The world will change around it, because the world has no choice. I’m sorry if that’s inconvenient, but it’s true.

I must admit to agreeing with this analysis, and there is a message here for higher education. His later comments are even more relevant for those who work at universities that are trying their best to ignore the free / open revolution occurring around them:

Like all dying industries, the old perfect businesses will whine, criticize, demonize and most of all, lobby for relief. It won’t work. The big reason is simple:

In a world of free, everyone can play.

This is huge. When there are thousands of people writing about something, many will be willing to do it for free (like poets) and some of them might even be really good (like some poets). There is no poetry shortage.

Competition! Massive amounts of almost-no-barrier-to-entry competition. Much of it will be poor. I suppose you can take some comfort in that. But some of it will be very, very good. And that should scare existing institutions silly. The education game is about to change, and you (your institution) have three choices:

1. Innovate your way forward. If you allow your business model to become flexible and responsive, you can feel your way forward, influencing the emergent educational context as it simultaneously influences your business model. (A dynamic system!)

2. Wait for others to innovate their way forward. Let them shape the future educational context without your input, and hope that 10 years from now higher education is still a place where your institution is relevant. (If it isn’t, you’ll have only yourself to blame.)

3. Ignore / deny that anything is changing (or will ever change). Higher education is too important, too deeply woven into the fabric of society, too critical for employers, and too big a business to fail. (See you on the other side with GM and AIG.)

Chris’ book may or may not deal with higher education specifically, but higher education will have to deal with his thesis as surely as I’m typing this post. As Lehi taught, there are two types of things in this world – “things to act and things to be acted upon.” The day is close at hand when each university will have to decide which they are.

2 thoughts on “Arguing About Free and the Future”

  1. Sign me up for the innovation option. I’m too impatient to wait and you’d do a pile driver on me if I opted to “ignore/deny” reality.

    Seriously though, innovation is the only viable response to disruption. It surprises me that Gladwell doesn’t see this coming. He’s usually quite prescient.

  2. I agree with you, ignoring Web 2.0 will not work. We will reach a point soon where everything you can learn in Higher Education you can learn through Web 2.0. It’s often called ‘Informal Learning’ but you must not be fooled that this is somehow not as valuable. Where Higher Education will always have a role is the validity that their badge will give when it comes to formal assessment. Even this could be broken down with time but not any time soon.

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