Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Information wants to be ... expensive. Really, really expensive

More than a quarter-century ago, Stewart Brand -- the guy who invented the Whole Earth Catalog and once participated in scientific research of LSD – attended the first Hackers Conference, which was memorable for this quotation:
“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."
Unfortunately, the only thing remembered about that statement is the “… information wants to be free” part, which really makes no sense until you put it into the context of the entire statement. Essentially, what he was saying is that the value of accurate of information will increase as the cost to spread it around decreases.

This, of course, makes perfect sense, and the intervening 26 years have proven Brand absolutely correct. After the failed experiment over the past nearly two decades of disseminating “free information” and looking for various ways to turn that into a sustainable business model, serious news organizations are returning to a simple premise: Journalism done well – compelling, relevant, accurate, and often, local – has a value that can be calculated in dollars and cents, and people who want to be engaged in their communities will pay a reasonable amount for it.
“If this trend succeeds, it could not only save newspapers and magazines, but usher in a new golden age for them,” writes Walter Isaacson in this month’s Atlantic magazine. “It could also be a boon for citizen journalism, which is now practiced largely by those who can afford to do it without pay. In a future where people pay for good content, bloggers who produce truly valuable information might actually be able to pay their mortgages and buy food for their families.”
But, wait, there’s more. He continues:
“For 300 years … there has been a system in which the creators of intellectual property … had a right to benefit when copies of them were made. This “copyright” system helped to encourage and sustain generations of creative people and hardworking hacks. From this grew an economy based on the creation of intellectual property, along with industrial organizations such as newspapers and publishing houses that trained and supported writers. If we want to have that for future generations, we may have to get used to the notion that some information wants to be paid for.”
Elsewhere in the same issue of The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn writes:
"Ironically, only the 'old' entertainment and media industries, it seems, took open and free literally, striving to prove that they were fit for the digital era's freewheeling information/entertainment bazaar by making their most expensively produced products available for free on the Internet. As a result, they undermined in little more than a decade a value proposition they had spent more than a decade building up."
Oops.

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