Free Information, Not-Free Information, and the Tension Between Them

This morning I read an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (no, you liberals! That’s not an oxymoron.) The piece is titled “Information Wants to Be Expensive,” and concerned the whole newspapers-are-dying problem. (As always, there’s no way to know if the WSJ provides free access or not.)

Anyway, the author mentioned Stewart Brand’s now-legendary comment about information wanting to be free — and then noted that the “free” statement was only part of a longer comment.

So naturally, the historian in me wanted whole story. You can read Brand’s original comments (which he made at the now-famous, in some circles, 1984 “hackers” conference) here. (The link will take you to an e-version of the May 1985 issue of Whole Earth Review. Brand’s comments — and Steven Wozniak’s reply — begin on p. 49.)

Then he expounded on the idea in a 1987 book, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT:

“Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”

The book itself has not been digitized (at least not as near as I can tell), but I found the full quote here. More here. Two useful books on the history of all this: Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture, and John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said. (Full disclosure: I’ve read Markoff’s book, and I read Fred Turner’s dissertation, on which he based his book, but not the book itself. It’s on my list.)

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