The Economics of Free

Chris Anderson, B.S. ’81, edits Wired magazine and is an expert on technology trends.

Chris Anderson Sits at desk on phone in front of computer
September 08, 2009

By Menachem Wecker

Although just about everything else in life could be free, a college education—and the personal interaction with professors and classmates it brings—is still worth paying for. So says Chris Anderson, B.S. ’81, author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price and editor of Wired magazine.

“Most people aren’t wired to learn from books and videos alone,” says Mr. Anderson. “We respond best to a more Socratic dialogue with questions, collaboration and conversation. That’s still done best face to face.”

In his book, Mr. Anderson says “free” means something very different today than it did in the 20th century, when it was largely a marketing gimmick to entice customers to buy things. This model worked in the early 1900s for Jell-O salesmen, who gave out free cookbooks with recipes that used Jell-O, and Gillette marketers who crammed free gum, coffee, tea, spices and marshmallows into the disposable blade packages.

But present-day free, according to Mr. Anderson, is a completely different model. New media and technology have allowed costs of goods and services – like publishing, and Mr. Anderson’s book was released for free for a limited time online – to drop to virtually zero, since the products exist as computer bytes rather than atoms.

This product migration to cyberspace has affected universities too. Once available only to students who actually showed up to class, faculty lectures are now accessible to anyone with access to YouTube, iTunesU or a variety of other Internet-based audio and video hosting services, as Mr. Anderson explains in a section in the book titled “How can a university education be free?”

This situates institutions of higher education ideally to contribute to free learning. “The online distribution of lectures, curriculum and other ‘courseware’ for free is a big and important trend, possible only with the near-zero cost of digital publishing,” Mr. Anderson says. “It helps recruit better students and professors and elevates the university’s public profile. It also promotes learning at little expense to the institution, which is a great way to achieve the core mission of the university.”

But even if he believes the elusive free lunches are not only possible but even cost-effective (bars have offered them to help make money on their real product: alcohol), Mr. Anderson worked hard to get into GW. A Washington, D.C. native, Mr. Anderson failed out of the first university he attended and spent the better part of his 20s working as a messenger and playing in bands.

He decided to go back to school and chose GW for its great night school program. He earned good grades and was admitted as a full-time student.

At GW, Mr. Anderson chose to major in physics, which had been a lifelong passion of his. “I had always wanted to study physics, both for the challenge and my hero worship of Richard Feynman,” he says. Though Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Dr. Feynman never taught at GW, the physics department has been home to several notable faculty members, including Edward Teller, “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” and George Gamow, who advanced and expanded the Big Bang theory.

“I didn’t really know anything about the GW physics department but learned about its rich history later,” Mr. Anderson says. “It turned out that a small department was perfect for me. I got a lot of time with professors and got to do lots of cool research projects, including at Los Alamos National Laboratories!”

For Mr. Anderson, GW was certainly worth it, even if he was not the typical student. “I was an adult student, living at home and working to pay my way, so I didn’t have much of a social life,” he says. “My best memories are of cool research projects and learning to use research tools, including the then-novel idea of using a PC spreadsheet program for physics data analysis.”

The cool research projects have clearly paid off. Writing for Time magazine’s 100 list, where Mr. Anderson appeared in the category of scientists and thinkers, best-selling author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell called Mr. Anderson’s previous book The Long Tail “a Truly Big Idea” that “will make you see the world a different way.”

Mr. Anderson’s latest book might be said to present even bigger ideas, whose truths not only can set you free but rethink the concept of free.

Student Life