On Portulans’ Reading List

Welcome to the new ‘book review’ part of Portulans Institute’s Website!

Every month or so, you will find here short reviews produced by the Portulans team and partners about recent books and articles that we see as directly relevant to PI’s mission and objectives. Some of those will be accompanied by exclusive short videos/interviews with the author(s).

We open this new series with a review of Michael Kende’s latest book (March 2021) ‘The Flip Side of Free’), by our co-founder and director Bruno Lanvin.

We hope you will enjoy this new feature of Portulans’ website, and look forward to your reactions, as well as to your suggestions of good books and articles to consider for future reviews!

A short review of ‘The flip side of free’ (Michael Kende, MIT Press 2021)
by Bruno Lanvin, Co-founder and Director of Portulans Institute

Subtitled ‘Understanding the Economics of the Internet’, Michael Kende’s book came out last March. Although it makes some references to COVID and is consequences on digital transformation, its scope and purpose are much broader. It is based on the author’s long experience (FCC, Internet Society, World Bank i.a.) of observing, analysing and diagnosing the internet and its epiphenomena, including social networks, e-commerce and e-government. For all these reasons, it goes deeper than many other books on similar subjects (the economics of the internet), and raises issues that we often choose to ignore or dismiss as ‘transitory’.

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The book is clearly organized in three parts.

The first one explains briefly why the basic components of the internet economy are free: flat subscription rates allow anyone to offer free WiFi to their guests or consumers, since the price they pay remains the same, whatever the number of people who use their connexion; the use of web browsers and search engines is also free, because their creators (typically advertizing and data). A number of additional (often invisible) services are also available for free, such as the governance exercised by technical and standards bodies (such as ICANN), who also get their revenues from other sources (eg generic domain names auctions).

Part II of the book is the one that is realy about the ‘flip side of free’. Basically, it remnds all of us, the daily users of the internet, that ‘There is no free lunch. We do pay for these services, and the currencies we use are called privacy,, and sometimes security. As an economist by training, Michael Kende underlines the importance of platform economics, and natural monopolies as key ingredients in this process. This allows him to close this second part with a convincing analysis of oersistent digital divides, and why some regions such as Sub-saharan Africa, may face growing cincerns in the future.

Part III is future oriented, and outlines some of the avenues that should be pursued to solve the problems at hand. For te author, it largely boils down to restoring trust in the digital world: privacy, security and limiting market power abuses should hence be our priorities. The book is clear, well written, and often witty and humorous. It is filled with down-to-earth examples, but never loses sight of the big picture. It reminds us that humans are irrational beings, and that behavioural economics often apply better than traditional ones when it comes to the way we use digital tools.

It is hence a healthy and timely call for some honest thinking about our own attitudes and habits, and a call for action by individuals, private companies and public entities to make the digital world a more healthy, innovative and enjoyable one. For all these reasons, it is a highly recommended reading for everyone interested in world affairs, digital change and the future of the internet.

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Available from MIT Press and Amazon
Our Co-Founder Dr. Bruno Lanvin presents an exclusive interview with Michael Kende, author of ‘The Flip Side of Free: Understanding the Economics of the Internet.”

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