Articles

Information, Freedom, Flame-bait

In Uncategorized on 2010-02-03 by Kyle Maxwell

The phrase “Information wants to be free” gets 92,000 hits on Google.

As wikipedia notes, Stewart Brand (then editor of Whole Earth Review, and a clueful chappie) uttered the fateful words at the first hacker’s 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.

He subsequently reformulated it slightly:

Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive … That tension will not go away.

The condensed version — and it’s almost always quoted in the condensed form, much as those who quote “my country right or wrong” almost invariably miss out the second clause (“when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right”) — is an attractive slogan because it’s simple, but ambiguous. It’s worth noting that English, the language in which “information wants to be free” was coined, makes no distinction between two usages of the word free: free as in “civil liberties”, and free as in “no payment expected”. “Information” is also ambiguous; Brand’s explanation of the coinage uses the word “information” to mean both content and bandwidth, but this nuance is lost in the shortened form.

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