Monday, January 28, 2008

Information wants to be free, but writers want to be paid.

Google the first part of that sentence and you get about 101,000 hits. Google the whole sentence and you get nothing. At least at 10:30 a.m. on 1/28/08.

I came up with the second half of this pithy statement. Unfortunately, I am also convinced that someone came up with it before me!

The first part was originally written by Stewart Brand (I understand in the May 1985 issue of the Whole Earth Review, transcribed from a 1984 conference) and has since metastasized through our culture. His original quote was, “information wants to be expensive, because it is 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.” This is a far more nuanced thought than the short phrase normally quoted. So where did the second part come from?

Bryan Alexander suggested that Bruce Sterling had originally made this point. But I have been unable to hunt down any of his writings where he makes this exact point. The closest I have come in a speech he gave to the LITA Conference in San Fransisco in June 1992 in which he rails against the commercialization and commodification of information and states, ironically, “You seem to be under the misapprehension that information wants to be free and that enabling people to learn and follow their own interests will benefit society as a whole. Well, we no longer believe in society as a whole. We believe in the *economy* as a whole -- a black hole!”

Another possibility is John Perry Barlow's March 1994 article in Wired "The Economy of Ideas." In which, while proposing a new system of encouraging creators to create because copyright will not function in the digital age, he states that, "Stewart Brand is generally credited with this elegant statement of the obvious [information wants to be free], which recognizes both the natural desire of secrets to be told and the fact that they might be capable of possessing something like a "desire" in the first place."

Trouble is neither of these express exactly the pithy second part of my statement. They are about as close as the ur-statement of copyright's purpose, "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8.)

So, I am looking for some help. Do you know who first said or wrote the second part? Let me know, leave a comment.

I find Barlow's article really interesting for another reason. I have always been unsatisfied with information science's understanding of information. We have tended to define and think about information as objects. As though an reference interaction for instance is as simple as a question and and answer that ca be captured with a hatch mark on a stats sheet. Any reference librarian will tell you it doesn't feel like that. Barlow articulates the reason for my discomfort. He writes about information as an activity.

"Freed of its containers, information is obviously not a thing. In fact, it is something that happens in the field of interaction between minds or objects or other pieces of information.

Gregory Bateson, expanding on the information theory of Claude Shannon, said, "Information is a difference which makes a difference." Thus, information only really exists in the Delta. The making of that difference is an activity within a relationship. Information is an action which occupies time rather than a state of being which occupies physical space, as is the case with hard goods. It is the pitch, not the baseball, the dance, not the dancer."

Mystical, but really, really good. There is lots more there that is worth considering. Read the article.


Anonymous said...

I found a blog that mentions a similar topic and discusses the origin of the phrase "but writers want to be paid." Not sure how helpful this is.

Kim G.

dmkupas said...

I found an article at PC World entitled, "Microsoft Fears E-Book Piracy: Will Copy Protection and Education Help E-publishing Steer Clear of a Napster-like Future?" by Clare Haney from 2000 (
It quotes Dick Brass, Microsoft vice president of technology development, with saying the following: "I don't believe information wants to be free. . . I believe authors want to be paid."

Paul G said...

Now when I Google the entire statement, I get one hit - this blog.

Bryan's workshop blog said...

I think Sterling said this in a speech, podcast but not transcribed. Will keep looking for it.

Jonathan Miller said...

What a great example of the power of Web 2.0! I blog my ignorance. I get four responses all of which reinforce the original point (that I did not think of that pithy phrase first) and move back the first use of the phrase to 2000.

I still hold out hope that Bryan will come through with a citation .....

Alicia said...

Thank you. The discussion of "information wants to be free" has always left me with the nagging question, "but what about the writers who should be paid for their work." --Alicia Ellison, Librarian, Hillsborough Community College (Tampa, FL)

mckie said...

I am writing about this now, and shamelessly linking to you. You're better sourced and more reliable than anything else I can find. Well done! Hooray for professionalism.