Show Hide image

"We were so keen to believe that Web 2.0 would make the world fairer that we rejected all evidence to the contrary"

Exciting as they sound, the Wired editor’s theories have no sticking power

Few attempts at rewriting the rules of business have been met with as much hostility as the latest theory touted by Chris Anderson, editor of the technology magazine Wired. His latest book, Free: the Future of a Radical Price, expounds a philosophy of “freeconomics” – businesses in a vast range of industries, he argues, should emulate the giant giveaway of the internet. Bold, perhaps, but also spectacularly badly timed. And the response has reflected that. The Economist, for one, has roundly criticised Free. “The lesson of the two internet bubbles,” it intoned, “is that somebody, somewhere, is going to have to pick up the tab for lunch.”

What is really puzzling is that the backlash against Anderson’s ideas has taken this long to happen. The response to his first book, The Long Tail, an analysis of online businesses which sell a wide variety of items in very small quantities, compared Anderson to Copernicus, no less, and its title became a buzz-phrase for the new media and marketing classes. But eventually his theory wilted in the face of empirical evidence.

Both books contain a grain of truth; however, in each case it is buried beneath a pile of dramatic, improbable extrapolations. Anderson correctly notes that digital technology has lowered the cost of production (and reproduction) of digital goods, the cost of transactions, and the cost of ­acquiring customers. However, the giveaways his freeconomy depends on require someone else to pick up the tab, and in the current economic climate, with profits evaporating and jobs being shed, there is little enthusiasm for altruism or wild punts. In addition, media owners and executives have turned viscerally on the notion of giving away their key products. Rupert Murdoch, who could be heard lauding Web 2.0 a couple of years ago, now echoes the fairly common view that aggregators such as Google are parasitic. Understanding how such flimsy ideas became so popular in the first place involves looking back to the infancy of the magazine that incubated them.

In 1992, Louis Rossetto, an expatriate American living in Amsterdam, was getting exhausted. For a fruitless two years, he had been pulling a blueprint from his backpack. It was for a new magazine that would foretell dramatic changes in business and society as computers became networked – but nobody wanted to know. However, his fortunes took a turn for the better when he met Nicholas Negroponte, the well-connected Boston socialite and academic.

Negroponte was seeking a publicity vehicle for his “concept factory”, a novel business proposition spun out from the venerable Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Negroponte’s Media Lab didn’t trouble itself with boring engineering and scientific research – the empirical bedrock of technological innovation, which takes years to bear fruit. The Lab was designed to coax corporate sponsorship with attention-grabbing ideas. This was Hollywood with P T Barnum thrown in.

Few of the whimsical concepts from the Lab – furry alarm clocks that run away, “ambient furniture” – would ever be viable products, but they generated acres of newsprint. And the press coverage drew in the sponsorship. Negroponte sold the proposition that his whizz-kids knew the future, and if you, too, suspended disbelief, so could you. A new business had been created. Negroponte became Rossetto’s first investor, and his flagship guru. Wired magazine was born.

Wired married an admirable American can-do spirit to the techno-utopianism of earlier media prophets such as Alvin Toffler, a former associate editor of Forbes magazine who has been writing since the 1960s about technology’s future and its impact. But Wired also inherited Toffler’s bossy, declamatory tone. The future wouldn’t just be different, it would be unrecognisable; history would be erased, and existing businesses must leap out of the way. The necessity to preach “rewriting the rules of business” in every issue set Wired on the path to hubris.

The answer to the puzzle of Anderson’s popularity lies in the roots of Wired itself – a mix of manifest destiny and opportunistic hucksterism. Anderson is primarily an evangelist for a vision that dictates a specific shape and structure for the internet. This may be premature. And, coincidentally, it is a vision that directly benefits one company, Google, at the expense of the telecommunications and media industries. Both of Anderson’s theses were inspired by critiques of the internet that fatally undermine this vision. Arguably, both amount to exercises in public relations rather than economics.

The Long Tail was a response to an essay by Clay Shirky, a prominent technology writer who also teaches at New York University. Shirky’s argument dampened much of the nascent utopianism about blogs, pointing out that the readership of early blogs followed what economists call a Pareto curve, or “power curve”: a small number of sites (the “head”) attracted a huge number of readers, but most (the “tail”) had few or none. This jarred with the utopian notion of the internet as a new kind of democracy. Why bother to participate if our fates were decided for us by a few block votes?

So Anderson turned the notion upside down. The blockbuster was over, he proclaimed, and, like a man possessed, he began to see long tails everywhere. It was the Guardian that lauded this logic by comparing Anderson to Copernicus. The implicit message was that the little people would win. Many people were so keen to believe that Web 2.0 would make the world fairer that they rejected any evidence to the contrary. It was only last year, with an exhaustive study of online music sales by the economist Will Page and an experienced digital retailer, Andrew Bud, that a more useful picture of digital markets begin to emerge.

Page and Bud found that most of the songs available for purchase had never been downloaded, and that the concentration of hits was more pronounced than ever before. On the file-sharing networks, the same pattern emerged. So, carrying a huge retail inventory, though cheaper than before, was of little or no value.

Now, with Free, Anderson has turned to the criticism that the internet destroyed the value of movies, newspapers and music. Firms could, and now should, cross-subsidise this unprofitable activity, he argues. But cross-subsidies aren’t new: they have been the subject of decades of observation by economists. Nor are they a panacea. Alan Patrick, co-founder of the Broadsight media and technology consultancy, points out that despite falling marginal costs, the idea of anything being “free to produce” is a myth; the costs are hidden elsewhere in the system. While at McKinsey, Patrick ran simulations of the “free to produce” business model and found that “it results in wholesale value destruction with no accruing market benefit, unless you can build an extremely commanding lead and get the whole positive dynamic of increasing returns working for you. But that’s hard and rare.”

Explaining the popularity of Wired-style theses should keep sociologists busy for years to come. They will doubtless note the business culture’s appetite for upbeat nostrums, and the media’s desire for myth-making. Business pays lip-service to genuine innovation these days, but, like the modern politician, it is keen to hear about the virtues of constant structural reorganisation, or how to adopt the ephemera of radical change. A speaker who can supply this market with new buzzwords can command 20 times the income of an American magazine editor. So one can hardly blame Anderson for trying his luck. And the buzz-phrases wouldn’t have spread without frequent repetition by an uncritical media. This could be evidence of a lack of confidence or expertise in explaining technical subjects – but it’s the same cynical resort to novelty that Negroponte banked on when he backed Wired magazine.

Anderson’s vision today looks curiously conservative and static, and is both deeply reductive and pessimistic about human nature. We are happy to pay when we perceive value, even for the most unlikely products, such as bottled water. The ideas at the heart of Free do little to explain that. For the “little people to win”, we need to draw on our human capacity for organisation and inventiveness, and engage in real, not virtual, politics. Fittingly, and not surprisingly, Free has had a critical mauling. So, perhaps the Wired era is over, departing like a snake-oil salesman at a medicine show who – having poisoned the town – can’t leave quickly enough.

Andrew Orlowski is Executive Editor of the Register

Chris Anderson: for and against

The Long Tail’s fans . . .

"Each year produces a book that captures the zeitgeist . . . This year
Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail has helped to reinterpret our world."
Times

"It is a powerful idea that provides us with a new(ish) way of looking at the world. Copernicus did the same thing for many people when he pointed out that the earth went round the sun."
Guardian

"I strongly recommend this one to anyone who wants to understand how economics is changing."
Telegraph

"Mr Anderson’s book does an excellent job of spotting trends and fitting them into an easily accessible theoretical framework."
New York Times

"The Long Tail does something that only the best books do – uncovers a phenomenon that’s undeniably going on and makes clear sense of it."
Slate online magazine

"By applying the long tail to the online world, Anderson brings intellectual order to what often looks like pointless activity."
New Yorker

"[Most technologists and bloggers] are envious of Mr Anderson, whose brainwave quickly became the most fashionable business idea around."
Economist

. . . and its critics . . .

"Is most of the business in the long tail being generated by a bunch of iconoclasts determined to march to different drummers? The answer is a definite no . . . our research also showed that success is concentrated in ever fewer bestselling titles at the head of the distribution curve."
Harvard Business Review

. . . and the response to the yet-to-be-released Free . . .

"Anderson’s idea of freeconomics offers a beautiful, if infantile, dream of a return to the Garden of Eden."
Guardian

"Free to produce is a myth – the costs are hidden elsewhere in the system."
Alan Patrick of the Broadsight consultancy

"Reality is reasserting itself . . . the lesson of the two internet bubbles is that somebody, somewhere, is going to have to pick up the tab for lunch."
Economist

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know

Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know