Posted by: Steven Harris | April 2, 2008

I want free information

OK, let’s just say that Meredith Farkas is brill (to swipe a phrase from the Brits). She is totally in touch with the zeitgeist and she is a great writer too. I’d sell somebody’s first born child to have her brains. But that title … “Information Wants to Be Free” … has got to go!

In her defense, the phrase sprang up years ago, right around when the Soviet Union was going all wobbly. There was a notion (kinda from information theory) that information could not be contained by totalitarianism nor by capitalism. It always sought the lowest spot, the easiest path, the chink in the armor. It was as though information had behavior. Information goes places you would never expect it to. Information wants to be free.

Aside from the information theory angle, the phrase became something of a motto for the open access movement. Information is not comfortable working for multinational corporations and selling itself to the highest bidder. Despite the exorbitant cost, that sort of thing made information feel cheap. Information would rather be involved with those nice open access folks. They don’t have a profit margin to watch out for all the time. They are on the same side as information. They want information to roam far and wide, wherever it pleases, free spirit that it is.

This is the sad part of the story: information is inanimate. It doesn’t want anything. Information does exist in the natural world: DNA, bird calls, stinky fruit. But most of the information we think about when we think information, most of the stuff librarians traffic in, is human-made. Thus, it is fairly susceptible to commodification. Some people want to make money from the information that they generate. Some information is pretty valuable, and, therefore, encourages other people to … yes, “gouge” is the right word … gouge the market. This makes those of us who are paying the gougers pine for free information. It’s a sticky wicket, really. As is often the case, you get what you pay for.

And through all this, information just lies there being information, not really feeling uncertain of its role in the world. It just waits for us to do something with it. Sometimes it is bought and sold. Sometimes it is given away. Sometimes it makes people smart. Sometimes people ignore it. Alas, poor information. It has no desires. It is the vessel of our desires. But human desires are often in conflict. The people who want to sell information and the people who want free information are just going to have to sit down and work things out.

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