Information: free, or expensive? Yes.

This blog includes a tool to display a quote at random from a database I’ve created. When I checked the blog after posting PC, XT, and me, this was the quotation I saw alongside:

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.

— Stewart Brand

“Information wants to be free” is a meme of long standing, as Roger Clarke points out. The expensive part doesn’t appear as often.

How you define “expensive” makes a difference — is it simply price? That kind of value can emerge in a marketplace (in which case I’m not sure I’d bid all that high for the right to broadcast the next Olympics). There’s also expense related to the transformation that information can bring.

While in general we tend to think that free — as in, openly accessed — information is a good thing, I for one get uneasy about the access other people might have to information I’d rather keep private. (For a grocery-store discount card, without which the “sale” price doesn’t exist, I signed up as Eric Blair.)

It’s not really the information that does the wanting, of course. Like two-by-fours or bags of concrete mix, information is an artifact, an artifice, an arrangement performed by human beings. So of course some want it to be highly expensive, so as to profit from it; others want it to be free, so others can profit from it.