It is true, if inconvenient, that information wants to be free. Which fortunately doesn’t mean we’re done with Art or Journalism or the other services embodied in bits.
Stewart Brand · He coined the phrase in 1984; the original is “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.”
I disagree with the first half: Information qua information, as in facts, wants to be free not expensive; things like the best route from here to the airport, the closing price of Google shares, and election results.
These things want to be gratis, free-as-in-beer, because the cost of delivering them is so low; money is just too klunky and slow to fit, at the single-bite level. And they want to be libre, free-as-in-speech, because, well, some of it is speech, and the rest is stuff that makes life better for everyone.
Nero Knows · At this point, the voices of traditional journalism and other information-providing businesses are raised in a howl, along the lines of “you’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” Yep, and as long as you hold onto the silly notion that you’re in the business of selling information, you’re gonna be gone.
At this I’d like to turn the floor over to Nero Wolfe, the famous fat fictional detective created by Rex Stout. I recommend the books unhesitatingly, and also the excellent A&E adaptation, in which Timothy Hutton is brilliant.
In the 1960 novel Too Many Clients, Nero intones, at a key point in the story: “I don’t sell information ... I sell services.” Exactly.
Service is Never Free · At the moment, there are three information-heavy services for which I pay: the New York Times, the Economist, and Tripit. In none of these cases does it feel like I’m paying for any particular piece of information. I’m paying for a service, for reliance on the promise that it’ll be there. For the two global news services, I’m paying to be sure that when there’s something interesting happening in the world, they’ll arrange for somebody smart to provide well-informed perspective. In the case of Tripit, I’m paying so that I can be sure that I can find my hotel’s address as I walk through the airport, and that I’ll get early warning of flight cancellations.
Would I pay even ten cents for an erudite piece on the troubles of the Euro-zone, or for a yes-or-no answer on the status of any particular flight? Unlikely. But I feel good about paying for a service that is going to work to offer knowledge that I know I’ll need and that experience has taught me will be useful.
I’ll grant that the distinction between bits-as-bits and bits-as-a-service may not always be obvious. But it’s crucial, because people will pay for only one of the two. What seems crucial in making the distinction is that in the case of a service, I’m paying ahead, for a predictable response to the unpredictable future.
As for Art · I actually don’t worry that much. First off, it’s always been a lousy way to earn a living. Second, the arts have always depended on patrons. Third, anything with a performance component can offer something you’ll never get through a computer network. Fourth, these days I find myself buying books all the time, bitching about the e-book pricing at Kindle and Kobo, but buying nonetheless.
Do Like Nero Said · Don’t sell information, sell services. If they’re services people need, you’ll do fine.