Reassurance Cuddles for CEOs

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail, gave a talk at the MaRS Centre this morning to promote his new book about the economics of free stuff. I was looking forward to hearing him speak: his resume includes stints at The Economist, Nature, Science, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, so he’s obviously a bright guy.

The talk was crap. There’s no other way to say it. It was superficial, derivative, and stumbling (OK, maybe there are other ways to say it). None of what he said was original (I was going to say “particularly original”, but the qualifier isn’t needed), and he failed completely to back up any of his claims with anything that looked like evidence.

So why were people listening? As we walked out, I remembered a book called The Witch Doctors by two other Economist alumni named John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. That book is a critical look at the rise of management consulting gurus like Peter Drucker and Tom Peters; somewhere in it, the authors make the point that what people are usually paying for when they hire a high-priced management consultant is not answers, but certainty. It’s the corporate equivalent of the reassurance cuddles I give my two-year-old: “Shh, shh, my little CEO, the world might be a big, scary place, but I’m going to send all the monsters packing so you can sleep safely tonight.” The audience—mostly thirty-somethings and forty-somethings in suits—weren’t looking for subtlety or shades of gray. They wanted to be told that the future still belonged to them, and like a good free marketeer, Anderson gave them exactly that.

Two things saved the talk from being a complete waste of time. The first was bumping into the captain of my old Ultimate team, whom I hadn’t seen in four years. The second was Anderson’s mention of the freemium business model, which reminded me that I wanted to say that I think it’s the future of higher education: lectures and course materials will be free, while students will pay per use for tutoring and access to labs, performance spaces, and the like. A handful of universities will earn their keep by being recognized for honestly administering meaningful examinations (my money’s on the Open University, by the way, rather than traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions); the rest will become research institutions, winter camps for middle class teens and tweens, or fail.

But that subject deserves both more thought and a longer post. Right now, I’m going to go read my actual two-year-old a goodnight story. Any CEOs who are reading will just have to wait their turn…