The Times, 'Game of Thrones', and Trayvon Martin: Information Doesn't Want To Be Free

By Philip Bump , written on March 22, 2012

From The News Desk

In 1984, Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, spoke with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at a conference in California.

“On the one hand,” he said, “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.”

The conversation took place at the first Hacker’s Conference and should be – but isn't – understood in that context. The tension between restricted information and demand for it. Brand’s saying has instead become shorthand for an ethos: the advent of the Internet has greased a slippery slope away from walls and artificial restrictions, and we should be pushing it along. “Information wants to be free.”

It doesn’t.

Take one specific type of information: content. The economic tension between content creators and those who want to access that content has by no means faded with the universalization of the Internet. The music industry was shaken, splintered, and rebuilt by digital music sharing (and with the help of a computer company, Apple). The movie industry is a behind on that curve — but not far. MG Siegler recently noted the inexplicability of his not being able to pay HBO (at least, not a reasonable amount of money) to watch the second season of Game of Thrones — a complaint that it’s hard to believe will still exist in five years.

Likewise the news media. The New York Times announced it was revising its “paywall,” giving non-subscribers ten free articles a month instead of the twenty they’ve enjoyed over the past year. The Times example is being hailed as a success: when it was announced, the paywall was treated with skepticism. Even the drop from 20 to 10 free articles is indicative that things are working. The decision is a data-based refinement that better reflects how people use the site. It's an economic refinement to a specific model of information-sharing.

This model is, in a sense, the same as that of music, and it's where movies are headed — information, once all locked away and then all free, becomes free, to a point. Reshaped in different contexts and still nascent, the model seems as if it could work more broadly.

At least for content. Non-economic tensions surrounding the freedom of information are harder to resolve. That Mike Daisey’s story about workers at an Apple factory was a fabrication was information locked away within Mike Daisey. The world wanted it to be free; Daisey didn’t.

Or consider what happened on that street in the Orlando suburbs. Only George Zimmerman knows what happened to Trayvon Martin, only he knows exactly what happened in that confrontation — and it’s not clear that the whole story has emerged. There’s a huge amount of value in that information, just as there was in what Daisey knew.

Information doesn’t want to be free. We just want it to be. Whether it's so that justice can be served or because we want to see what happens to Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, information spurs demand.

Sometimes, it’s demand that money can’t buy.

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