Guest Post–Information Wants to Be Free

by Nelson Minar

Nelson Minar

The phrase information wants to be free is one of the most important observations of the information age. Dating to Stewart Brand in 1984, the statement is often misunderstood and sure to piss people off.

The phrase is a simple observation, like saying “a compass wants to point north.” Information intrinsically has a tendency to spread. Controlling information, bottling it up and keeping it limited, is difficult. There’s a bit of a poetic turn in saying “wants,” since of course information has no agency. The underlying truth is really a statement about human nature: people tend to share information.

The phrase is not a statement that information should be free. It’s not a statement that sharing information is an intrinsic good. It’s also not saying it’s impossible to keep information not-free. Just difficult.

The truth of “information wants to be free” is obvious to anyone who works in informatics. But it’s ignored time and again. It’s ignored by record companies trying to prevent music downloads, by startups trying to enforce embargoes on tech news, by the US government trying to share secrets with thousands of people and yet somehow not by the world at large.

Digital networks have made sharing information enormously easy. But the underlying reality that information wants to be free is as old as society. Villages have always had gossips, but now the gossip is global, instant, and with perfect fidelity.

Nelson Minar is a software engineer and general aviation pilot. He’s been living online since he was a nerdy kid in 1985. This post first appeared on his blog.

5 Responses

  1. Neil in Chicago

    the two versions I’ve collected:
    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.
    — Stewart Brand, May 1985 *Whole Earth Review*, p. 49.

    Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine — too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.
    — Stewart Brand

  2. Marilynn Byerly

    One important point many creative people want heard is that INFORMATION AND ENTERTAINMENT ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

    Works of entertainment like songs, novels, artwork, etc., are leisure activity and a luxury, not an absolute necessity like some information. Works of entertainment are not just facts floating in a sea of copyrighted text, they are whole in and of themselves.

    If you can’t read the latest King novel, no harm is done, and nothing in the world changes.

    Stealing entertainment is short-term selfishness and long term self-destruction because copyrighted entertainment, by its nature, must have some form of payment for the creator. If King’s income for his books slows to a trickle, you can be dang sure he’ll stop writing.

  3. Jeff VanderMeer

    Hey, I find this piece fairly useless. Yay, information should be free. But if you think a novel is “information,” then go read an essay.

    JeffV

  4. Jason Block

    The fact that ‘information’ is created and spread by human agency implies ethical responsibility on the individual and societal levels. There are other inevitable ‘tendencies’ which society is specifically designed to discourage.