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.

Continue reading Information Wants To Be Expensive. Information Wants To Be Free

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)