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Book review: Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

By Evgeny Morozov  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back.

When Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting our Economy appeared in 2007, its subtitle was music to many ears. Short on facts and long on hyperbole, it wasn’t very persuasive, but by then the growing fear that elite culture was capitulating to the vulgar ephemera of pokes and tweets had turned Internet-bashing into something of a cult itself.

In Free Ride, Robert Levine, a one-time executive editor of Billboard magazine, makes a much stronger case for an impending cultural apocalypse. And while he occasionally ventures into the Andrew Keen territory — “this isn’t creative destruction; it’s the destruction of creativity” — he also knows his statistics.

According to Levine, the Web took the culture industry by surprise. Technology companies, on the other hand, were better prepared, exploiting the ensuing confusion to lobby for favorable laws. Levine singles out America’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which ensures that sites such as YouTube don’t have to pre-screen every uploaded video for possible copyright violations. Real trouble began when services such as Napster threatened too many business models by allowing users to swap files. Worse, a formidable intellectual lobby — spearheaded by law professors such as Larry Lessig and funded by Silicon Valley — tried to rationalize such activities under the “free culture” banner.

Levine is not exactly a “free culture” man. He argues that faddish ideas celebrated by Internet gurus — for instance, that newspapers should give away their online content — are based on sloppy economics. “For media companies, getting advice from technology pundits was like letting the fox lead a strategic management retreat in the henhouse,” he writes.

Publication Notes

Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

By Robert Levine

320 pages

Bodley Head


‘FREE CULTURE’ IDEOLOGY

Levine is an engaging, provocative writer, and there is much to like about Free Ride. His basic insight, that Silicon Valley’s penchant for experimentation may inadvertently hurt the culture industry, is correct. His materialistic — almost Marxist — explanation of the “free culture” ideology as the product of Silicon Valley’s covert agenda is also quite refreshing.

However, Levine’s penchant for the conspiratorial — everything eventually leads to Google! — is a distraction that occasionally makes him sound like broadcaster Glenn Beck. Most likely, he would dismiss the present reviewer — a fellow at the New America Foundation and Stanford University, both of which take quite a drubbing in Free Ride — as shilling for Google. (Regrettably, I am yet to receive a Christmas card from Eric Schmidt.)

While it’s true that Google has been aggressively shaping Internet policy, this doesn’t mean that its interests always diverge from those of the public. To take an obvious example: Google is funding work on circumventing Internet censorship — the more people browse the Web, the better it is for Google. Is it reasonable to attack such efforts on the grounds that Google has a commercial agenda?

In mounting his passionate attack on Silicon Valley, Levine often distorts the arguments of his opponents. I have yet to meet anyone who subscribes to the theory that “the price of any good should fall to its marginal cost.” Levine believes that Wired’s Chris Anderson wrote just that in his 2009 book Free. But he didn’t: Anderson was writing about firms selling homogeneous and undifferentiated products, not songs or movies. (Anderson: “If one product is vastly superior to another ... the primary determinant of price is not marginal cost but ‘marginal utility’ — what it’s worth to you.”)

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