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The truth, as told to people who should already know it
on December 14, 2011
It isn't abundantly clear to me who Levine's target audience is with a book like this. It seemed at first that the book was aimed at the digital generation, since they'd be the ones most likely to read a book like this. How many people who aren't Internet-savvy are going to read a book about the new forms of media distribution and how it impacts the creation of art and culture? Cracking the book open, however, suggests that it's for non-technical audiences; Levine consistently stays away from any type of technical language, which leads me to believe that this is meant to be a mass-market book. I could be wrong on this, but overall, I get the impression that this isn't a book for Millennials, but rather a book for informing the older generations on what's happening with media distribution today.
The problem with this, if I am in fact correct in that impression, is that the older generations already understand how and why old ideas relating to media distribution work. This book attempts to dispel some of the present-day notions relating to information distribution in the Internet Age, which means that it would be most purposeful if it were read by the Internet Generation; they're the ones who might find the ideas in this book eye-opening. Pre-Generation X readers will probably find little to surprise them here.
However, if the reviews here on Amazon are any indication, it seems that the Internet Generation is reading this book after all, which is probably a good thing. All of this being said, then, let me try to summarize the intent of this book. Quite simply, Free Ride is a call to return to common-sense thinking, flying directly in the face of all the assumptions that the market seems to have made about media on the Internet. People who spend hours of their spare time on the Internet every day are NOT likely to agree with the core points of this book, but if they keep an open mind when reading, they may just come to a better understanding of how "the other side" in the battle for new media thinks.
Levine thoroughly picks apart one of the key fallacies of the Internet Age: the idea that "information wants to be free." Levine observes--and quite rightly so--that proponents of the Information Age have made a critical oversight by wholeheartedly adopting two incompatible tenets: First, they have settled on the idea that information is the most valuable commodity in the world today. Though it lacks physical substance, information, the digerati will tell you, is worth more than physical goods such as wheat, steel, timber, and so on. Secondly, they have embraced the idea that "free is the new black." That is to say, all this information should be given away for free.
Anyone with any ounce of sense should immediately recognize that these ideas are incompatible with each other. If the Information Age is trading in information, what good does it do to give away your only valuable commodity for free? The idea that a viable business model can be based on giving information away for free is only adopted by companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and so on--companies which make most or all of their revenue on advertising. In doing this, these companies have utterly devalued the cultural production of "real art" by making music, text, and visual media freely available to the world, but making money by cluttering that media with advertising. In other words, adertising is regarding as the only "information" of any value; everything else--the actual content--becomes worthless filler. This is an atrocious inversion of cultural values, and Levine's objection to the devaluation of culture is palpable.
Free Ride follows a familiar formula: Like most books of this type, it spends most of its pages laying out its case, stating facts to back up its claims. The book's subtitle speaks to "How the culture business can fight back," but perhaps predictably, the actual sections advocating some type of action are compressed toward the end of the book, almost as an afterthought. This part is where things get really interesting, however, as Levine's ideas about solutions are positively antithetical to the current Internet media model. If new media geeks find Levine's premises doubtful, they'll absolutely howl when they read Levine advocating government intervention in how the Internet spreads information. Writing about the Internet in Europe, Levine notes that government legislation is effective in controlling what can be accessed on the Internet: Levine relates amusing anecdotes of how large Internet portals trotted out their usual lines about how regulating the Internet restricts freedom of expression and "the Internet can't be regulated anyway," until European governments passed federal laws requiring Internet sites to restrict traffic to certain countries, at which point the Internet portals magically discovered that they can regulate the Internet after all. Lest we forget, let me remind you that Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and similar online portals make nearly all of their revenue on advertising. They have no interest in providing quality information to readers; like any other large media organization, they simply want to provide something simple and entertaining so they can get people to keep viewing their ads. That's not a sound basis for the generation of meaningful cultural media.
Levine is no fool; he knows fully well that most people won't pay for something they can get for free, and he's not afraid to advocate strong controls on the Internet to cut down on piracy. People who lack any understanding of politics and companies which make money from advertising on the Internet are always quick to provide a knee-jerk reaction to such ideas, insisting that their rights and freedoms are being violated, but Levine's obviously smart enough to see through this empty rhetoric. This takes me back to my original point: If people of the older generations read Free Ride, they'll fully understand how and why the government regulates the flow of information; their only question will be why such hasn't been done sooner. The under-30 crowd, however, will quickly take to reddit or Facebook and insist that Levine is one of the most evil and dangerous writers of our current era. None of the ideas in this book are new; the book is obviously biased toward implementing stronger controls on the Internet, and while this position is not "wrong," Internet people are so brainwashed into thinking that old media-distribution channels are "obsolete" that I doubt even a book full of well-researched and compellingly-presented information such as this could convince them. Don't get me wrong; I don't like the idea of policing the Internet myself, but given how utterly rampant piracy is, Levine's really just telling us all what we should already know: A game in which everything is given away for free can only last for so long before it all collapses. If anyone doubts this idea in the slightest, they may find food for thought in Free Ride, but as a resource for new ideas or non-partisan perspectives on a hotly-debated topic, Free Ride doesn't really have much to offer. Worth a read for anyone who's unfamiliar with the issue or who wants to read a rebuttal to the "information wants to be free" sheep, but if you're thoroughly convinced that your e-business of downloading torrents is going to make you a millionaire, you should probably just put your headphones back on and go on pretending that everyone believes what you do.