I am spending time recently thinking about the following paradox about information from Stewart Brand, as printed in the Whole Earth Review:
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.
He also said later:
Information wants to be free (because of the new ease of copying and reshaping and casual distribution), AND information wants to be expensive (it’s the prime economic event in an information age)… and technology is constantly making the tension worse. If you cling blindly to the expensive part of the paradox, you miss all the action going on in the free part. The pressure of the paradox forces information to explore incessantly. Smart marketers and inventors quietly follow-and I might add, so do smart computer security people.
The tension between information both being the most valuable thing we have in humanity, but also that it wants to spread and can spread so much more easily when digital resonates with much in the very concept of information networks.
- Think about the music industry’s early struggles and missteps with how to handle privacy, i.e. the legitimate desire to protect artists and the business overriding any notion of giving the customer what she wanted which was something more maneuverable than the physical CD. We’re getting a lot better, but still struggling with this, i.e., where content needs to be monetized for effective creation, but spreads easily due to technology and cultural norms.
- The current patent battles and the state of the patent system are arguably about a system being abused to overprivilege the “expensive” aspect of information over the natural process of information spreading. This inhibits the opportunity for others to build on ideas in the process of innovation.
- It’s also true that some of the most valuable internet ideas — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Pinterest — have been the networks that have enabled the creation or organization of content for free and made the sharing and spread of that information frictionless. We’ve talked a lot about that on this blog. See for example this post. These types of ideas are particularly lucrative because while the information is valuable, creators are not concerned about being compensated.
Another potential idea is where you accelerate commerce, perhaps in some expensive service, by somehow tying it into an information activity to take advantage of the frictionless roll of information to spread it and gain the value out of sharing it with others. Here, like in the first example above and unlike the third example, one wants to somehow solve the paradox in both respecting the information/idea as both something valuable that needs to be monetized, but something that also needs to be shared in the natural order of things. This is a difficult problem but lucrative if solvable. I need to think about this and will post more in the future.