Jan 31, 2012

Information Does Not Want To Be Free

Stewart Brand is infamously reported as saying "information wants to be free"- the rallying cry against any limits on information ownership, the mantra for free content and ideas.

Which obviously leads to scorn and mockery: "You'll often hear cypherpunk weenies with poorly-thought-out philosophies trot out 'information wants to be free' as some kind of pseudo-socialist Utopian vision."

Except Brand never said that information wanted to be free, and I don't even think he meant that.  What he said was much more profound, and as timely now as ever.  He said either:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
Or this:
Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. ...That tension will not go away.
Either way, I believe that what he was talking about was NOT the value of information.  He wasn't purporting to opine, for example, about the inherent value to a user of content, or the equilibrium pricing relationship between demand for information (which is limited) and its supply (basically unlimited).

He was referring to the power of networks - the wealth of networks.  Human networks amplified by the Internet.  What networks do is that they take the traditional "distribution" roles associated with information - production, marketing, promotion  - and push those to the edges, the nodes, as opposed to a centralized source.  And they do so in more transparent, non-hierarchical manner.

In centralized systems, production, marketing, promotion and distribution are viewed as costs, expenses, and something to be tightly controlled and managed.  That's what traditional media companies do.  In the networked world they are opportunities, but they are pretty much uncontrollable.  In that way they are authentic.  And this is precisely the tension about which Brand spoke, for this represents maybe the final breakdown of the traditional media content producer/distributor/consumer buckets.

Those separate pieces  now become one, they blend into one another.  They aren't centralized core competencies anymore.  This is represented by the idea that there are no more consumers now, there are only “users”. As a result, this transformation alters fundamentally the whole media value chain. This is potentially disruptive to many companies.

But it does not mean that users will not pay for information or content.  To the contrary. For example, Hollywood’s best box office years ever were 2009 and 2010.  Similarly, publishing industry revenues expanded in 2010 almost 6% over 2008 (with ebook sales growth of over 1000%).   Hulu has over 1.5 million paying subscribers.

Therefore, it's not helpful if the discussion centers around whether information wants to be free or not.  For that is not the right equation.

Information (content) does not want to be free.  Instead, information just wants to be distributed friction-free.  That's a big difference, and also the massive opportunity that should be at the center right now.

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