Information wants to be expensive

And, out of context, it can mislead.
Stewart Brand

How many people know that one of the IT world's tritest catch phrases is only half of a much more sensible description of two opposing forces? My title above may appear to contradict the well-known truism that "information wants to be free", but it's actually the other half of Stewart Brand's original quote:

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.

Note why information wants to be free: "because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time." He's describing a trend in publishing by anthropomorphizing information to make his image more vivid, not ascribing volition to an abstract concept. (Being an abstraction, information can't really want anything.) Brand was saying that, while information can be very valuable, advances in publishing technology create a force that continually lowers the cost of distributing it, and "you have these two [forces] fighting against each other".

The expression "but information wants to be free" gets over 900 hits on Google, showing that many people think that it's a valid point in an argument. The next time you hear someone use it, ask them "why does it want to be free?" or even "says who?" Call me cynical, but I don't think you're going to get good answers.


And if they do know it was Stewart Brand, you could still stump them by asking them to sing the Karl Bartos song "Information wants to be free" :-)

Actually, I was wondering about this phrase just last week...Bob the Psychic!

From my understanding of Heidegger, I believe he would state that information is free (or has a low marginal cost) it is knowledge (skillful doing) that is expensive and that has high marginal cost to obtain.

This depends on Heidegger's original wording and how we choose to translate it. I don't want to debate ideas about information and its cost as much as I want to restore the overused five-word Brand quote to its original context.