Information wants to be free*

Information wants to be free*

*No, that’s not what he said, and no, it’s not completely true.

Thirty-five years ago, in a conversation with Steve Wozniak (pioneer of the personal computer), Stuart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog along with many other foundational disruptions), said:

On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.

This is prescient, and it deserves to be quoted or at least paraphrased correctly.

Information wants to be free or it wants to be expensive.

How can both be true?

Information that seeks the network effect, that is most useful when lots of people know it, that changes the culture–well, making this information free is the best way to accomplish this effect. The alphabet wants and needs to be free, because if you had to pay to learn and use a set of letters to make words, it wouldn’t be universally adopted and would fail. The same is true for the pursuit of hit records–getting played on the radio is the goal of the label, even if the radio is giving the music away. The music is ‘worth’ more when it’s a hit.

The tension for so many creators is that they’re used to friction associated with their mass-produced work, friction that used to pay them better than it does now. This is the shift that Brand is talking about in half of his statement.

But some information is valuable because it creates barriers to entry, gives a few people a head start, confers status, solves a specific problem in real-time, etc.

There’s no reason to price the design of a custom addition to a home by a famous architect at free. The person who’s buying it doesn’t benefit from it being free–they benefit from the status that comes from it being scarce.

And the information that comes from a meeting that’s only open to paying attendees is worth more because you got to learn it and others didn’t.

And Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire because his company sells information to companies just a few seconds faster than they can get it anywhere else. The cost of the information creates scarcity and the scarcity creates value.

[This post was inspired by a poorly edited headline and article in the Times yesterday that got the quote wrong and is also remarkably (or sadly, not remarkably) sexist. It’s hard to imagine it having the same tone if it were written about a man.]

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