Halfway through his review of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, it became totally clear to me. I mean, I always knew it but I didn’t appreciate the full implications until now.

Malcolm Gladwell is essentially an entertainer. He writes to be read and enjoyed rather than to challenge and educate. He turns ideas into fashions, baubles to be jingled and toys to be tossed around, as in a game.

Is there anything wrong with that? Not necessarily. I’m not anti-entertainment, nor am I personally attacking Gladwell for entertaining — not as long as everyone understands what it is.

We need entertainment as much as we need education, but the distinction has to be made to ensure we don’t mistake entertainment for serious dialog — which seems to be the case in mainstream journalism.

I was reminded of this from Michael Kelly:

The thing that is sometimes dangerous about writers is that they can express their ideas more cleverly than most people. This wouldn’t ever be a bad thing if good writers always had good—that is, sound, true—ideas. But there is in fact no necessary correlation between an ability to finesse language and a true understanding of the world.

This is not an original critique. Richard Posner’s review of Blink famously shredded it for being too descriptive and for reading “like a book intended for people who don’t read books,” among other things.

But this latest piece is especially poor. Some of it seems astonishingly uninformed (not that Gladwell is uninformed, it’s just information I would assume he has is obviously missing). This part really stands out to me:

It would be nice to know, as well, just how a business goes about reorganizing itself around getting people to work for “non-monetary rewards.” Does he mean that the New York Times should be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels?

Indeed it would be nice to know — which is precisely why so many business intellectuals and behavioural economists are busy working on it, looking at how things like experience, attention, identity, and engagement affect people’s motivations and decisions.

It was Peter Drucker himself, the godfather of modern management theory, who explicitly proposed we should think of employees as volunteers motivated by non-monetary rewards:

Peter Drucker captured it best when he said that knowledge workers do not respond to financial incentives, orders or negative sanctions the way blue-collar workers are expected to. I particularly like Drucker’s observation that the key to motivating creative people is to treat them as “de facto volunteers,” tied to the firm by commitment to aims and purposes… “What motivates knowledge workers,” writes Drucker, “is what motivates volunteers. Volunteers, we know, have to get more satisfaction from their work than paid employees precisely because they do not get a paycheck.” The commitment of creative people is highly contingent, and their motivation comes largely from within.

That’s from Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, another pillar of modern pop-intellectualdom (Florida has come under attack as well, but after giving RotCC a second chance I was impressed by how much substance and longevity it actually has; despite/because of its popularity, I don’t think it gets enough intellectual credit).

In 2009, of all years, and Malcolm Gladwell of all people, using scare-quotes around a notion that has moved to the very centre of the dialog about doing business in the recession and moving into the post-recession economy.

Now that Chris Anderson responded and Seth Godin joined in (all we need now is Thomas Friedman to make this an official pop intellectual battle-royale) I get the feeling that in the end this whole debate is a pointless exercise.

BusinessWeek’s Bruce Nussbaum originally sided with Gladwell, saying he “destroyed” Anderson’s argument, then later agreed with Godin’s criticism of Gladwell. Fundamentally, it looks like everyone is in agreement.

When Godin writes

People will pay for content if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people. We’ll always be willing to pay for souvenirs of news, as well, things to go on a shelf or badges of honor to share.

Nussbaum responds

That’s another way of saying that people will pay for value-added and not commodity-type stuff. OK. I agree. That’s always been at the core of capitalism–unique things or services we crave and pay for become over time commodities and cheap (almost free) and are replaced by new stuff, which we are willing to pay lots for.

And who wouldn’t agree?

It’s like one of those arguments in which people mistake a difference of perspective for a difference of opinion. Both sides keep trotting out examples and counter examples that can be interpreted in different ways, depending on how one looks at them.

The fact that YouTube loses a lot of money can be used as evidence for both sides — and neither side — of the debate. Do we look at it as unsustainable in itself, or do we look at it as part of Google’s massive success? The same goes for broadcast TV: does its current decline falsify Anderson’s case, or does the fact it thrived for decades support it? All we can say is it depends, and we’ll see…

The one thing Gladwell unquestionably got right was

The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.

Yeah, “too obvious to write a book about,” but it’s also too complex to treat as a New Yorker piece.

If anybody “destroyed” anyone else’s argument, it was Matthew Yglesias, who destroyed everything:

I think the whole subject could stand to benefit from a little less good writing and a bit more plodding distinction-drawing. …

And more:

To clarify my own position, I think I would say that I basically agree with Anderson that “free is the future.” Where I guess I part ways with him is the sort of exciting up with people business guru tone of the whole thing.

So we’re no further ahead than we were with Anderson’s original article in Wired, along with Kevin Kelly’s thoughts on “Better Than Free.”

What we needed to follow up with was more unfinished dialog, probing, experimenting, essaying, and prototyping — not more slick, Condé Nast-style packaging and presentation.

One of the reasons I support more free and open media is that it conduces more towards unfinished dialog — what Jeff Jarvis calls process journalism — which does more to address and prepare us for real, emerging challenges.

More people are spending more time reading blogs by professional economists, legal scholars, etc. These are usually far from entertaining, but the general public is acquiring a taste and appreciation for them.

There’s hope that journalism will not be tyrannized by good writing forever. Even Malcolm Gladwell remarked:

“It would be so great to write a really small, incredibly nerdy book. I would really like to write a single narrative book… I have a side of me that just wants to have lots of charts and graphs and statistics. And endless footnotes.”

Interesting phrase: “endless footnotes.” That pretty well describes the blogosphere. It reminds me of the fact that ideas are always incomplete, always in-the-making — “there are no iron laws.”

Given his influence and the respect he garners, I think he owes us that nerdy book.

[Originally posted at openconceptual.com. Note that I won’t be cross-posting everything from there. I’m still working things out.]