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Information wants to be anthropomorphized.

From http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/II/IWtbF.html

In fall 1984, at the first Hackers' Conference, I said in one discussion session: "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." -- StewartBrand, as printed in a report/transcript from the conference in the May 1985 *Whole Earth Review*, p. 49.

On the other hand, the meaning of this term has changed to be more along the lines of "Information doesn't want to be controlled or contained."


I seriously doubt that "Information wants to be free," in the contemporary usage of this phrase. In fact, I think "I want information to be free" more accurately reflects the meaning.

There's contemporary usage and there's true meaning. My own interpretation is this: it is the desire of information to be unfettered.

Information tends to slip the bonds that seek to control it. It's not that information has to be free (libre), or free of charge (gratis). It's that once data gets out, it has legs. Cost enters into the picture as well, as the transmission and duplication cost is generally far less than the first-instance creation cost. And to be useful, data has to be exchange. Managing information is the key to its use, so the dichotomy: value in control, but tendency toward uncontrolled release -- has to be balanced. -- KarstenSelf 14 Apr 2001

Information wants to be controlled. You are full of information. You choose what information you want to present to the world. For instance, you choose your words, you order your sentences. You don't babble every thought in your head. You say as little as you want or as much as you want.

In non-Giving Economy business[,] and indeed in TheArtOfWar?, keeping information away from your competitors is a must. You shred documents, you sign non-disclosure agreements, you put passwords on your computers.

In betterdifferent business, i.e. sustainable, collaborative, gifting businesses, you operate transparently by prioritizing your sharing energy (a naturally limited resource) on those that make valued, voluntary contributions. You are able to operate without adding restrictions like copyrights and patents to the flow of information you produce, maximizing the utility of the information into the distant future, where it can serve as raw material for ANY artist to build upon. http://betterdifferent.com Demonstrating the Power of Free Information[,].

Information doesn't want to be controlled (it wants to be free). It's the holders, seekers, and conveyers of information that seek to control it. -- KarstenSelf 14 Apr 2001

Heck, even our friends the CypherPunks want information to be controlled. They of all people in the world do not want information to be free. Hypocritically, though, they are often the first ones to help "liberate" information.

The cypherpunks have a common interest in encryption. Often this group overlaps with others. Cypherpunks often disagree about intellectual property, or even property in general. (There are some serious "anarchists" within the group.)

Indeed, it is the scarcity of this information that gives it value. As long as you have data, ideas that someone else wants, you have something to trade for. And as long as you have something of value, the other party wants to take it from you at as low a cost of possible--preferably, at no cost. The difference online is that there is you on one side and a billion thieves on the other. Could you protect your house if there was a concerted, large, organized effort to break into it? Nope.

If you look at the StreetPerformerProtocol, they recognize that once the data has left the controlling hands of the artist, it's lost all its value. However, by maintaining control over the information they create desire in the marketplace and the value of the information goes up, thus providing a revenue stream.

On the other hand, information will approach no cost (the original usage of the phrase) because the frictional costs of manufacture, distribution and entropy are becoming lower and lower. Consequently, more people can get their hands on the information leading to a commensurate increase in revenue to offset the lost revenue. Well, at least the content generator hopes.

Another consequence of cheap information is the broadening of the broadcast pipe. Let's take NapsterDotCom as an example here. Before, us proles were limited to radio, television, friends, bars and the occasional random source as "frontmen" to different music. However, Napster bursts the dam, flooding the proles with music of all types. People can listen to whatever they can download. This is good (for the proles at least).

However, we have a new problem: how do you separate the gold dust from the silt? You cannot possibly filter all that information yourself. You need someone to control the pipe for you, thus adding value by restricting the junk. Services like http://www.live365.com do this for you. As will ViewPoint.

I just don't buy that information wants to be free. I do buy that people are rancorous thieves looking to reduce their own costs. But, hey, what's new? -- SunirShah

Ah, but grasshopper, is it thievery, or is it cooperative datasharing in disguise? -- KarstenSelf 14 Apr 2001


Information wants to be anthropomorphized.

More seriously, people disagree about the value and handling of information. To some people, "information wants to be free" because it takes serious effort to prevent people from freely sharing information. The ease of copying, and the number of people who will widely copy the information can seem like a force pushing toward freedom. A physical analogy would be like preventing water from flowing down a hill--it can be done, but it requires effort (like building a dam). This version is relatively value-neutral: it requires effort to restrict information transfers in the presence of people who want to copy it.

So, InformationWantsToBeFree actually means InformationTendsToBeFree?.

The distinction between (Lisa, please hand me my broad brush, thank you) the media, on the one side, and cypherpunks, on the other, is that the interest of corporate media is to seek strong controls over data that is inherently public: radio, television, online content, recorded media (software, audio, video), books, etc. The cypherpunk movement is generally concerned with access to cryptography to ensure that private data has the ability to stay private, whether it concerns one person (diaries, notes) or private communications between a few (email, telephone, etc.). To this extent I find more sympathy with the cypherpunks -- they are moving with the spirit of information -- let public information be public, let private information stay private -- when the tendency of the oligarchy is to try to put artificial constraints such that public data acts as if it were private, and private data becomes public. -- KarstenSelf 14 Apr 2001

Another way to look at the "wants to be free" is as a political/social goal. Many (nearly all?) people believe that a "post-scarcity" world would be a good thing. In such a world people would be able to acquire/use anything they want as long as they aren't (directly?) harming others.

In the "physical" world, it is obvious that we are a long way from a post-scarcity dream. It seems possible that everyone in the world could have basic needs (like food and medical care) fulfilled, but obviously not everyone on Earth can have a 200-square-mile ranch (there isn't enough surface area on earth, for starters). (Extraordinary optimists can envision scenarios where trillions of people could each own their own planet or personal space-time dimensional system. If that happens, I'll be happy to be wrong. :-)

In the "informational" world, however, it seems possible for everyone to get all the information they desire. (See below for some disagreements based on privacy/access issues.) Information could become even freer than air, since the use of air often reduces its value. Requiring that people not copy information might become as nonsensical as requiring payment for breathing.

Hmm - try living in one of the cities that's so polluted that folk will go to a booth to pay for a shot of oxygen because they're gasping for air ...

It is possible that "Intellectual Property" might someday be regarded in the same way as "The Divine Right of Kings" is viewed today--as an idea that was often useful, but eventually superceded by better systems. Indeed, the idea of "owning" property itself might be considered quaint. Perhaps "property" would be replaced by "post-legal systems of ethical conflict resolution", or something even stranger. The idea might seem strange, but consider the rise of "democracy", the "rule of law", and "equal rights for minorities"--all ideas that were radical at one time (and are not universally observed today).

Personally, I tend to see the current "free information" movements as similar to the early Greek democracy. A fine ideal, and possibly a good model for some future societies. There are many powerful opponents, however, and it is far from certain that "free information" ideas will thrive. (I don't even consider "democracy" to be out of danger just yet.) To me, there are more important conflicts over the broader issues of social freedom and power. (For instance, to what degree should democratic governments be involved in "marketplace/economic" decisions? Consider the large differences between European and US governments.) Freedom of information will be a part of these broader decisions, however. --CliffordAdams


[Issues related to privacy, press restrictions, and "personal information" were initially mentioned above, but I think it would be good to separate them for further discussion. One could consider the remarks above to cover "public" or "commercial" information, and discuss "private" information separately. Of course, some people will argue with that distinction.--ca]

[Moved from the text above:] I cannot think of any means where freely-sharing information directly harms others. Any harm is caused by the changed actions of the recipient, such as not giving money to an "owner" (rarely the discoverer/creator) of the information. --ca

How about publicizing trial information before the verdict? In the States this is common place and leads to public media convictions independent of the justice system. In Canada, information can only be published after it has been presented in court. We also don't sequester our jurors, so they have full access to the media. Typically, then, we only really hear about a trial when it starts and when it ends. I certainly can't see how publishing the psychotherapy records of a rape victim is useful. --ss

There are definitely cultural differences between the US and most other democratic nations. For instance, in the US, the press is given rather extraordinary freedom. With few exceptions, only maliciously false information (reasonably believed to be false) is prohibited from publication. Even in extreme cases (such as publishing military-classified material), it is rare for the press to be restrained before publication.

I see the FirstAmendment absolutism as necessary, especially in a political system as interconnected and vulnerable as that in the US. A judiciary that can restrain the press could very well abuse these restrictions. In a sense, I think the US press takes on some roles that Canada and European nations often give to the governments.

Canadian press is fairly unconstrained as well, only really limited during trials. Our judicial system does not sequestre jurors, hence the necessity to gag the media until the facts are presented in court. The States places more emphasis on the FirstAmendment than the people involved in the case, hence the need to sequestre the jurors. It's a trade off. I personally prefer our system, but that figures. Then again, I think that most journalists are impotent. Fiscal powers (by owners, corporations and governments) prevents useful information from reaching the constituents. So, if the media is fundamental to democracy, one could question how democratic either of our nations are. -- SunirShah


Another possibility is for information to be controlled, but for a limited time. Copyrights used to be quite short compared to their current versions. If the current trend of perpetual copyright ends, eventually there will be a truly vast amount of "public domain" information. Rational pricing and large audiences might make access to huge libraries extremely cheap. Possibly information could be as cheap as water? (Not "free", but at a cost so low most people don't consider it.)

Funny, once again we end up in States vs. Canada conflicts. The States is so poor at managing their water, they continuously try to rape Canada for theirs. Only the constant and consistent disgust Canadians have for Americans and the pride we have for our natural resources (despite our continued efforts to destroy them ourselves), keeps politicians from pocketing the bribes and shipping the water Stateside. Water is underpriced. --ss

I'll agree that clean water, and fresh air are underpriced, if one's goals are to ensure an adequate supply of each for a long-term future. These are not always the goals of the people who control those resources. (As you put it, nationalism has priority.) The book NaturalCapitalism argues strongly for conservation and reduction of waste, and presents some encouraging results from policies that expose "true" costs of resource use.


The ideas of "personal information", privacy, "transparency", and encryption could use a few comments. In general, "free information" supporters advocate that commonly useful information should be free. Information that is mainly used as an access key, such as credit card information, is a different matter. Keys do not have value by themselves--their value is the access to the controlled resource. "Private" information such as financial data, personal beliefs, or medical information is a rather grey area. (Consider the US/European conflicts over privacy.) [Does anyone else want to extend this?]

I am perfectly satisfied if people come together to create free information, like FreeSoftware. It is a different matter to steal content from legitimate content owners. If you want a free version, write it yourself. This way, the most common and useful material will be free whereas the costly and arcane is not. This is fair and balanced. On the other hand, since art isn't functional, it is much more difficult to replace. Hence NapsterDotCom. --ss

One could reply that "intellectual property" is like fencing off parts of a global commons.

False premise. TheTragedyOfTheCommons addresses overutilization of a finite resource. -- KarstenSelf 14 Apr 2001

The usual justification for copyright is a limited right for a limited duration, in order to encourage production of more information. That justification might be re-examined in the future. Perhaps what is called "stealing" today will be compared to "bootlegging" during the US Prohibition era (when most alcohol distribution was greatly restricted). A real free-information radical might compare sharing information with the end of slavery: another case when a form of "property" was found to be against the social interest.

What CopyrightLaw does is create a FalseScarcity?, increasing the value of the information. This isn't to prevent access to the data, but to control it and create a directed revenue stream, the goal being (under US copyright tradition) to create an incentive to produce further such works. What's happened over the intervening two centuries and some is that copyright law has been extended to address the rights of the holders of content (and its rights) rather than the creators of same. You're right that the original intent doesn't match the current implementation, by a long shot. You might want to look at EldridgeVsReno?. -- KarstenSelf 12 Apr 2001

The current "intellectual property" rules seem to encourage a system which largely rewards publishers and distributors over artists and creators. The US/multinational music industry has been strongly attacked for its frequent disregard of artists. Other industries like book and comic publishing are exploring new ideas that resolve some of these problems (see OnDemandPublishing and ReinventingComics?). I'm also interested in what I've heard about British libraries--that they distribute some tax revenue to the authors of frequently-borrowed books.

On the other hand, creating a free information pool may be more effective in the short term. One could even draw a parallel between this and those people who buy slaves and set them free (which still happens today). The FreeSoftwareFoundation uses the GPL to adapt copyright law to its vision of free software. --ca

One could reply that "intellectual property" is like fencing off parts of a global commons.

This premise is inconsistent unless you believe in complete property anarchism. In fact, the analogy you use gives it away: it's similar to fencing off my yard. I own this property. The finite space on earth is at much greater premium than the potentially infinite number of ideas in the information space. -- SunirShah

The usual justification for copyright is a limited right for a limited duration, in order to encourage production of more information.

No, it's more like giving credit where credit is due. If you took credit for a work, you could also gain direct value from it. However, if you cannot say it was yours, property ethics step in here to direct value to the actual owner. Don't forget that most of society/economics is based on ethical treatment of fellow man. You only have property because I'm not going to steal it. -- SunirShah

No, Sunir, you're flat wrong on this by US tradition. US Constitution ArtI? Sec 8: "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". The balance of promoting public good (science and the useful arts) through private reward (securing...to authors and inventors) is wired into our form of government. Modern copyright tradition begins in England with largely similar goals. Current European tradition differs in focus from the US in that moral rights (an author's claim to authorship) is a central principle, but the practial commercial aspects are largely identical. Eastern (Asian) copyright tradition is quite different -- the concept is still rather foreign, even in advanced countries such as Japan. Chinese respect for copyright is close to nil. -- KarstenSelf 14 Apr 2001

The current "intellectual property" rules seem to encourage a system which largely rewards publishers and distributors over artists and creators.

Well, sure, they reduce economic friction to present material to end consumers. One of the most fundamental practices of capitalism. The reason why publishers can be so sucky to their content generators is that they have monopolies on distribution. The music industry is a monopoly in the form of the RIAA. If there are more distribution channels, then artists will have more power to negotiate better contracts. Besides, the role of publisher/editor/distributor will only become stronger in the superbroadband channel of the online world. Someone's got to filter. Hence MetaBrowsing, for instance, or ViewPoint. -- SunirShah

On the other hand, creating a free information pool may be more effective in the short term.

I don't mind this too much. I don't particularly like copylefting. I prefer ideas to be truly free. Publish the ideas openly. Let them be used in interesting ways. Create value by solving real problems. That kind of thing. But the GPL takes away with one hand that which it gives with the other. The idea may be open, but it can't be used in interesting ways without agreeing to a whole slew of problems. Could you imagine if you couldn't use the Pythagorean Theorem to calculate some useless fact about your bedroom's interior decor without publishing the results? Silly. -- SunirShah

Bad metaphor. You can use GPL programs without publishing the results, or with publishing the results under copyright. Further, you can modify GPL programs and not publish the modified version. However, if you do modify GPL programs, and you do publish the modified version, then you must license the modified version under the GPL. What you can't do is place limitations on who can use the modified version. That's not silly. MartinHarper


One problem that still perplexes me, and thus makes me a hypocrite, is the issue of patents. I dislike how patents work to prevent the furthering of the software discipline as it seems pratically impossible to write a complex piece of software without violating a patent or ten. Unlike copyrights, which protect particular expressions, patents protect particular ideas--a much larger scope. On the other hand, without patents, small inventors/companies would be quickly crushed by larger, richer, idea-thieving companies. Perhaps patent laws should allow for the "independent expression" clause of copyright; the one that allows another individual to make the same expression provided they did so independently without knowledge of the claimant's work. In this case, a patent holder would have to prove that the defendant actively stole their idea from them. -- SunirShah

I'm fairly happy that patents exist, because otherwise I'm certain copyrights would be twisted to perform the same role. I outlived the RSA patent (presuming I make it through next week :-), but I don't expect to see another copyright expire. The current flurry of software patents are uncomfortable, but finite in duration. In the longer term, the current broad patents might be a good thing since they will add many techniques to the public domain (when they expire).

The "independent expression" clause seems unlikely, and would likely destroy the enforcability of patents held by small companies. Could you prove that a huge research lab didn't independently invent something? Also, such a clause could encourage large companies to keep their processes a secret, since they wouldn't have to fear that others might patent first. (They could later unveil their "independent invention". The current system encourages people to publish or patent early.)

One worrisome trend is the growing "abuse" of the patent system to extend patents. GregEgan's book Distress gives a very plausible possibility of indefinite-length patents. (Biotech companies first patent gene sequences, then proteins expressed by the genes, then drugs that target the proteins, then the use of these drugs for certain purposes, etc.) Drug companies often do similar things today like patenting a drug, then later submitting a patent for some specific aspect of the same drug (even as trivial as patenting the shape of the pill). --CliffordAdams

Excellent points, all. --ss


I find it hard to accept information, in and of itself, as wanting anything. The nature of information is that it is shared. "Two people can keep a secret if one is dead", and all that. The power of 2 is often discussed in terms of communications between people. "I tried this shampoo, and I told 2 friends! And they told 2 friends! And they told 2 friends! And so on, and so on!" Business and government interests take extreme means to control the tendency of information to spread, as shown by NonDisclosureAgreement?'s, InsiderTrading? rules, ClearanceLevel?'s, etc. By these examples, yes, InformationWantsToBeFree. If you, as a human being, know something, you want to be able to tell someone about it.

I do not, however, believe that this is necessarily something that we need to glorify within ourselves. I have a cousin who used to have a car CD player, until his car was broken into. I have a cousin who used to be not as reputable as he might have liked to be. I was let into a confidence by the first cousin, saying that, although he didn't want to make a big deal about it, he suspected it was the second cousin who did this. I let a third cousin in on this confidence, and there was a minor rift between relatives because of this. Information wanted to be free, but loose lips can sink ships.

Beyond that, I personally am a Christian. I don't want to drag this into a pro-Christian/anti-Christian discussion, but there's a point that wants to be made free here. It is common to see people talk about the perfectability of man, and a common way this is presented is this: "It's 2001. We don't need foo!" The point being that since man is perfectable, social ills should have dropped by the wayside. To some point, this is understandable and acceptable, but I would argue that this only goes so far. Slavery as an economic force has been gone from western civilization for 140-200 years (depending on what you call western civilization, and if the United States counts as any kind of civilization), but it is going on in the Sudan, and in parts of Southeast Asia. (Perhaps they just haven't been in on the perfection process.) A Christian perspective would be that people are weak of mind and spirit, and as such we, given to our natures, would do things that are sinful, hurtful and bad to others. A Christian position on this would be that we give ourselves over to God and follow his commandments. Other religious traditions and other legal traditions will have other ways to get people to stop hurting others. And there are people within those traditions that find ways to steal from people, kill people, lie to people and otherwise make people hurt.

So, information wants to be free largely because of human weakness. To some extent, information wants to be free because of human generosity ("...But they cannot help their neighbors / That's not good, hackers. That's not good"). A freely-available, high-quality, mostly-secure operating system in the hands of everyone who wants it is a result of the generous aspects of this philosophy, and I hold it as an objective good. A freely-availble, acceptable-quality tool for sharing files containing other peoples' intellectual property comes directly from this philosophy and can be seen in metaphor with dub tapes or in metaphor with large-scale commercial privacy, and this is more problematic. And it has been used to excuse breaking into other people's computers, and I have no moral justification for that.


It seems people who want information to be free, and people who don't want information to be free have one thing in common. Both find their wants frustrated more often than not. What this suggests to me is that information, like more tangible features of the universe, doesn't revolve around the needs of people.

My own agenda is the de-institutionalization of information. "Institution" means different things in different contexts. My understanding of it is subjective...an institution is anything larger than I am, especially if I have to deal with it.

There seems to be much in natural law to frustrate this goal (de-institutionalization), too. One of the big barriers I keep running into is the persistent preference of the masses for passive rather than active participation in the economy of information. What, other than a pronounced passive streak in humyn nature, could explain the public acceptance of LoyaltyCards??

Happily, there is a vocal minority(?) within the population that takes an active interest in informational issues. They have liberated much information, much of it being algorithms. I hope to find somewhere in the open information community some pockets of interest in tabular information. I say this, because my computer skills are stuck in the twentieth century, and the only computer language that makes any intuitive sense to me is SQL. Also, in spite of (because of?) my level of education, the only skill I've successfully traded for money (so far) has been DataEntry. The power of tabulated information is apparent to me. The near-absence of it outside institutions disturbs me far more than juridical issues about intellectual property. In many cases, I don't see the accumulation of tabulated information as an intellectual accomplishment, anyway. It's more of a by-product of "scale", perhaps the effect EconomyOfScale? has on information.

The "mergeability" of tabulated data, I think, might create some opportunities for LittlePeople? working independently of institutions. Ordinary proles like you and me are in possession of receipts, statements, quotes, and other very "minable" data. Much of this is not (yet) explicitly labeled as copyrighted, and a relational (or other) database could make quick work of stripping it of privacy-oriented fields such as phone numbers, account numbers, etc, as well as merging it with empirical information from others' transactions with institutions. I call it PubWan, but you can call it corn.

Pax, LorraineLee


I pointed Advogato:person/ErikLevy to this page in response to a diary entry of his. He replied: Advogato:person/ErikLevy/diary.html?start=37. --ss


See also: TransparentSociety, OnDemandPublishing, BaenFreeLibrary, ReinventingComics?, ContentProtectionTechnology, CategoryCopyright

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