Information Wants To Be Expensive. Information Wants To Be Free

Stewart Brand? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Revenues in the recorded music industry and the advertiser-supported newspaper business have collapsed in the past twenty years. I am reminded of the following provocative remark:

Information wants to be free.

Apparently, this is only part of a larger quotation. Would you please explore the provenance of these words?

Quote Investigator: The influential publisher, editor, and writer Stewart Brand helped organize the first Hackers Conference in 1984. The list of attendees was based on Steven Levy’s recently released book “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution”.

In this time period the development of commercial programs for personal computers faced the problem of unauthorized copying which was reducing income. One response was experimentation with new business models such as freeware and shareware. The word processor PC-Write and the communications program PC-TALK were distributed using these models which attempted to elicit voluntary payments.

During a panel discussion Brand employed the rhetorical technique of personification by granting the abstract term “information” dual contradictory desires. He asserted that “information” wished to be both expensive and free. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

STEWART BRAND: It seems like there’s a couple of interesting paradoxes that we’re working here. That’s why I’m especially interested in what Bob Wallace has done with PC-WRITE and what Andrew Fluegelman did before that with PC-TALK. 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.

The passage above appeared in Brand’s magazine “Whole Earth Review” in May 1985 although the words were spoken in November 1984. Brand articulated a nuanced modern conundrum, and the phrase “Information wants to be free” by itself is an amputated distortion of his viewpoint.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On November 18, 1984 “The Washington Post” published a piece about the Hackers Conference, and the reporter printed the dual parts of Brand’s remark: 2

“There’s nothing on earth that’s so easy to distribute to people as software,” one hacker said. “It’s a trivial matter to make a perfect copy.”

“Information wants to be free,” said Stewart Brand, creator of the award-winning Whole Earth Catalog and the recently published Whole Earth Software Catalog. “But it also wants to be valuable,” a paradox he said is giving the fledging software industry such fits.

In 1986 “American Libraries” printed an instance of the two-part saying: 3

Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Software Catalog, coined a library adage for the online age at a conference program on microcomputer software. “If civilization is a computer, libraries are the hard disk,” Brand said. “And all the programs want to be on the hard disk,” he added.

Brand said the American library tradition of making information freely available to anyone who has a use for it is “at the ‘hacker’ end of the scale,” referring to the computer whizzes who consider it a challenge to break into any program and believe that “information wants to be free.” “But information also wants to be expensive,” Brand cautioned, and predicted that the debate between free and expensive computer use will intensify.

The Winter 1986 issue of “Whole Earth Review” published a discussion between Stewart Brand, Peter Schwartz, and Jay Ogilvy which included a concise version of the remark: 4

PS: The economics of this become quite interesting. Nobody knows. One of the great current puzzles in economics is, how do you handle information? I don’t have an answer to this. It’s a bitch.

SB: The way I keep stating it is: “Information wants to be free,” because it’s so easy to transmit; “information wants to be expensive,” because it’s so valuable.

Brand published “The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT” in 1987, and he included this pertinent passage: 5

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,” and the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.

In November 1987 Brand wrote an opinion article in the “Los Angeles Times” that began with the following paragraph: 6

Information wants to be expensive. The right piece of news, data or advice at the right time can be beyond price. An adroit piece of electronic entertainment or a sophisticated computer program can represent the product of decades of costly labor.

Later in the article Brand presented the counterpoint:

Information wants to be free. It’s so easy to copy, send and transform that the price tag gets left far behind. People copy and hand around personal computer programs costing hundreds of dollars, even sending them error-free through phone lines, free. People copy expensive TV entertainment with their VCRs and then zip past the commercials.

In conclusion, Stewart Brand should receive credit for both statements: (1) Information wants to be free. (2) Information wants to be expensive. QI believes that the dual statements should be presented together to fully reflect the complexity of the topic.

Image Notes: Picture of neon-style “Free” sign from kalhh at Pixabay. Picture of gold bullion from istara at Pixabay.

(Thanks to 2001 discussants Fred R. Shapiro, Douglas G. Wilson, and Gareth Branwyn. “The Washington Post” citation is listed in “The Yale Book of Quotations”.)

Notes:

  1. 1985 May, Whole Earth Review, ‘Keep designing’; how the information economy is being created and shaped by the hacker ethic by Stewart Brand and Matt Herron, (Discussions from the Hackers’ Conference, November 1984), Start Page 44, Point Foundation, San Francisco. (Academic OneFile Gale)
  2. 1984 November 18, The Washington Post, Hacking Away at The Future: Market’s Realities Undermine Thrills by Michael Schrage (Washington Post Staff Writer), Start Page F1, Quote Page F7, Washington D.C. (ProQuest)
  3. 1986 July-August, American Libraries, Volume 17, A crush of librarians, Start Page 518, American Library Association, Chicago, Illinois. (Academic OneFile Gale)
  4. 1986 Winter, Whole Earth Review, The world information economy by Stewart Brand, (Stewart Brand interviews Peter Schwartz and Jay Ogilvy), Start Page 88, Point Foundation, San Francisco. (Academic OneFile Gale)
  5. 1988 (Copyright 1987 and 1988), The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT by Stewart Brand, Chapter 11: The Politics of Broadcatch, Information Wants to Be Free, Quote Page 202, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1987 November 8, Los Angeles Times, Viewpoints: Finding a Balance in the Slippery Economics of an Information Age by Stewart Brand, Quote Page D3, Column 1, 2, and 3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)