Information Wants to Be Free . . . Again


I recall once, during my lawyering years, getting out of my car on a windy day. I set my legal briefcase on the trunk of my rental car and opened it, and then the wind gusted and hundreds of sheets of fairly important pieces of paper blew away like a flock of magician’s pigeons.

I wonder if that’s how the management of a company like LexisNexis feel when they hear that personal information about hundreds of thousands of people has "flown the coop," so to speak? The analogy breaks down and d'es strange things to legal notions of copyright, of course, when you realize that, unlike my briefcase, the LexisNexis computers still had everything in them that was there before.

The origin of the phrase, "Information wants to be free," is with Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, C'Evolution Quarterly, and the pioneering online community The WELL. He coined it in 1984 at the first Hackers’ Conference, saying:

"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." (Whole Earth Review, May 1985, p. 49.) (Note: At the time, "hackers" meant "programmers.")

John Perry Barlow analogized that since we have no good solution to the challenge of securing digital information and that we are rapidly digitizing everything possible, we are on a sinking ship which is leaking information out from within and taking on water from without.

"Legal efforts to keep the old boat floating are taking three forms: a frenzy of deck chair rearrangement, stern warnings to the passengers that if she g'es down, they will face harsh criminal penalties, and serene, glassy-eyed denial." (Wired Magazine, March 1994, “The Economy of Ideas”)

Every time I read these kinds of statements from more than 10 years ago I internally shake my head at their brilliance and my – at the time at least – cluelessness. Sigh.

But I have a thought of my own to add to the discussion. I regularly hear statements about how each person today consumes so many times more information than people did hundreds of years ago. Some would consider me a poster child for that thought, since I read and write and browse the Web all day long and then go home and read the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, USA Today, and the New York Times (but not the sports pages). Then I often read a novel and have averaged about one book a day for just about 50 years now.

But I just don’t think it’s true that the average human (or even me) nowadays consumes (more precisely takes in, it’s still all out there, except for olfactory information, which is based on actual physical substances which get used up as we receive the information they carry) more information than humans hundreds of years ago, and here’s why.

First, there is no doubt that we have far more bits and pieces and kinds of information available to us that ever before. But it’s pretty likely that without physical and electronic augmentation of the human brain that we do not have yet, that human brains have not only a ‘carrying capacity’ in terms of storage, but a number of variable limitations on incoming information bandwidth.

Second, we’ve probably increased the throughput of certain kinds of incoming information, but at the same time our culture and technology have placed many of us in an environment which is quite different from the ones that our ancestors lived in. That old truism (which may not be true, although it serves the purpose here) about the Inuit having so many words for “snow” actually points to the fact that the more people pay attention to something in their environment, the more they find there is to it. Kind of like where we’ve gone with science in the past couple hundred years.

Third, we--or rather our culture-–train ourselves to not recognize or see certain kinds of information. Even to actively avoid it. Take the common practice in crowded elevators of everyone facing the front while they travel up or down. We’re looking at a stainless steel wall instead of at maybe 15 other human beings, with all their different faces, hairstyles, clothing, and accouterments. Many of us have even let television or movie stars replace, for purposes of gossip and caring, the kinds of relatives and neighbors who would have filled those roles for us even only 100 years ago. Since what all those stars do is pretty intensely scripted, it’s like living in a gossip monoculture equivalent to 1,000 square miles of the same specific subspecies of wheat.

For example, in the last two years I’ve built myself a private disc golf course on the nearly 10 acres of land where I live, and included a half-mile walking path, etc. When I walk that path in June, I may notice a few beautiful wildflowers, and maybe a deer hoof print or two. My eyes and ears and nose probably do take in a whole lot more data than I recognize or can use as information--but that would not have been true of the humans who lived on this piece of land 500 years ago. They would have been paying closer attention to everything and, thus, taking in far more information than I do.

One of those people would have recognized hundreds of different plants, as well as their properties and uses and edibility. She would have been able to tell what kinds of animals had been where, and how often from prints and trails I simply do not see. She would have heard rabbits and the smaller creatures, even three-inch long voles traveling several inches under bent grass. I bet that if we could measure it, her brain was probably processing, storing, and using as much information as ours do, just different kinds and for different purposes.

How d'es information wanting to be free come into this? Well, there are two kinds of "free" pertinent to information. One means "no cost" and the other means "unrestrained." Of course, our modern society d'es its best to restrain valuable information in order to buy and sell it.

I like to think of our current situation as an aberration. Throughout most of human experience (with definite exceptions!) information has indeed been free, whatever was out there was unrestrained and no one was selling access to it. One might be able to think of current-day "fettered" information as "yearning to be free." In fact, whether or not information is "valuable" depends on whether or not the person who needs it has it at the right time. So there is a part of me that yearns to start a "Free Information" movement, complete with bumper stickers and email campaigns.

But I won’t. I have confidence that our future, despite the legal machinations, driven by economical concerns, will contain more than enough interesting, useful, and valuable information to satisfy my wants-–and far more than my storage and throughput can handle. Even if I have to stay up late and read that second book of the night to satisfy that information input craving.

1 As I used to remind my children (gross-out factor) when they were smaller, the olfactory sense is based on a system where very tiny particles of a substance float up into your nose and land at an olfactory receptor, which then sends information to your brain, which interprets that into a smell. In kid language that means that “Whenever you smell something, that means a little tiny piece of it is stuck up inside your nose.”
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