What does information really want?

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Tug of war


Cory Doctorow says "information wants to be free" slogan is "lazy, stupid shorthand."

(See discussions at Shareable.net and Utne Reader)

When celebrated science fiction writer, blogger, and copyright activist Cory Doctorow tweets, 40,000 followers glance at their phones.

So when Doctorow recently (but not for the first time) took issue with the phrase "information wants to be free" as an unofficial slogan of the free culture movement, a lot of his fellow travelers noticed.

Doctorow has made this case before. He points out that "information wants to be free" understates and sells short the argument, ignoring the many very practical, concrete, and reasonable ideas that actually inform the copyfight. In other words, the argument for free culture is not mystical or magical, it's logical.

The original remark from Stewart Brand was made at the first Hackers' conference in 1984:

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.

That idea was later distilled in Brand's The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT to:

Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. ... That tension will not go away.

So while Brand was talking about the actual value (free as in beer) of information, the phrase "information wants to be free" took on a life of its own.

For many people unfamilar or univested in the copyright debate, those five words were an excellent gateway idea that led to further exploration. The slogan, liberated from its orignial context, suggested that sharing of information, ideas, music, culture was natural and inevitable. It recognized that there was a deep human need to share and implied that any attempt to restrict that exchange past a certain point was not only wrong, it was also bound to fail. In that sense, it was empowering. Nature was on our side, and so was information itself. At least that's how many of us (mis-)interpreted it.

And as a simple piece of language, it just worked. The notion spread. It moved through people. It caught on because it sounded true enough, and had a nice, vaguely radical ring to it. It sounded like a big idea, the kind of idea that could expand your consciousness if you tried to fully understand it. In many ways, it was a perfect conversation starter. And let's not forget, it was very easy to remember. That's important in sloganeering.

So, as slogans go, "information wants to be free" wasn't that bad. It just wasn't that accurate, and it left a lot of important ideas out of the discussion. Still, those five words gathered a lot of attention, and hashing out its various interpretations (free as in freedom?, free as in beer?, and how can information want something, anyway?) did indeed help define the terms of the budding free culture debate in the '90s.

But Doctorow's most recent tweets questioning the phrase remind us how long ago that was. Now the once-cherished truism seems more like a platitude of a bygone age. While comparing "information wants to be free" with "kill whitey" might be an overstatement in the hands of an angry polemicist, it's hard to miss Doctorow's point.

Doctorow's tweets (via Shareable.net and Utne Reader) point to more concrete terms, reframe the debate away from the almost mystical argument that information is itself some sort of a collective spiritual entity that seeks its own freedom, and re-cast the issues in very practical ways.

  • “Information wants 2B free” is no more the rallying cry of free culture than “Kill whitey” is the basis of civil rights movement…
  • “Information wants to be free” is lazy, stupid shorthand for a complex and nuanced discussion that can be readily found…
  • Example: Copyfighters don’t want open gov-data because “info wants to be free.” They want it because they paid for it with tax…
  • Copyfighters don’t want the right to excerpt and quote b/c info wants to be free – it’s b/c this is the basis of all discourse …
  • Copyfighters don’t want the right to build on earlier works b/c “info wants to be free”—it’s b/c that's how all creativity starts…

"Information wants to be free" was, for better or worse, a powerful slogan, but 25 years later its work is done. The crowd has gathered, the rallying cry, however flawed, worked. But now we have to create some actual policies and change some real laws.

If overly restrictive copyright, patent, and IP rules are to be replaced with something better, the free culture movement has to supply people with good, solid reasons why they should want to protect these very important and threatened freedoms.


Colin Dodd is a writer at Red Hat.


There is a great article by Cory over on BoingBoing if you liked this post by Colin -
<a href="http://bit.ly/cHk6k8" target="blank" title="http://www.boingboing.net/2010/02/24/ip-alliance-says-tha.html">IP Alliance says that encouraging free/open source makes you an enemy of the USA</a>

This discussion is related to and reminds of the reasoning behind why people have long justified why organizations should choose to work in free and open source software (FOSS) projects.

"It's the right thing, the right way," as if that were enough, without further reasoning. When someone convinces you in the middle of the woods to take this path or that path, it's not because it is an ephemeral feeling. One clearly follows the river up and down, and water runs toward the sea. If you want to get to civilization, follow the water down.

This is why I used the provocative sub-title "The scientific facts about the open source way" for my <a href="http://iquaid.org/2010/02/24/first-keynote-crush-or-trash-at-scale8x/">keynote at the Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE) 8x last weekend</a>. And some folks told me they were interested in seeing the data - charts and graphs. The problem is, those are the wrong metrics for the situation. You don't check to see if someone is healthy by dissecting and weighing the pieces. Even if it does make for pretty graphs.

We've too often taken an easy, feel-good way out as a reason for freeing content and code. What the <a href="https://www.theopensourceway.org/wiki/Communities_of_practice">science behind communities of practice</a> tells us is, there is a certain type of communal learning environment that can be recognized back in history. It has certain patterns and constructs. If you have a group that can match to the patterns and constructs, it is most likely healthy and productive.

The same science tells us how effective these communities are. Story after story of businesses being positively effected by internal communities of practice, from book after book on related subjects. It's pretty overwhelming evidence.

The challenge is when people have already put a mental box around a concept because they consider it to be from a radical viewpoint unrelated to their world. It doesn't help that the word "free" in English has unrelated meanings that cause confusion, yet we keep using the word.

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