This is a reblog of Cory Doctorow's really wise revision to the old "Information wants to be free" aphorism. He puts that aphorism in context, fills in the missing clause, and emends it to better express what we all really do want to be free. He argues it is counterproductive to say "information wants to be free" because that is so patently easy to refute. We really want to be free of exploitation, right? Read his smart, wise, argument, originally published in the Guardian.co.uk.
Saying information wants to be free does more harm than good
It's better to stop surveillance control because it is the people who really want to be free
For 10 years I've been part of what the record and film industry invariably call the "information wants to be free" crowd. In all that time, I've never heard anyone – apart from an entertainment executive – use that timeworn cliche.
"Information wants to be free" (IWTBF hereafter) is half of Stewart Brand's famous aphorism, first uttered at the Hackers Conference in Marin County, California (where else?), in 1984: "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."
This is a chunky, chewy little koan, and as these go, it's an elegant statement of the main contradiction of life in the "information age". It means, fundamentally, that the increase in information's role as an accelerant and source of value is accompanied by a paradoxical increase in the cost of preventing the spread of information. That is, the more IT you have, the more IT generates value, and the more information becomes the centre of your world. But the more IT (and IT expertise) you have, the easier it is for information to spread and escape any proprietary barrier. As an oracular utterance predicting the next 40 years' worth of policy, business and political fights, you can hardly do better.
But it's time for it to die.
It's time for IWTBF to die because it's become the easiest, laziest straw man for Hollywood's authoritarian bullies to throw up as a justification for the monotonic increase of surveillance, control, and censorship in our networks and tools. I can imagine them saying: "These people only want network freedom because they believe that 'information wants to be free'. They pretend to be concerned about freedom, but the only 'free' they care about is 'free of charge.'"
But this is just wrong. "Information wants to be free" has the same relationship to the digital rights movement that "kill whitey" has to the racial equality movement: a thoughtless caricature that replaces a nuanced, principled stand with a cartoon character. Calling IWTBF the ideological basis of the movement is like characterising bra burning as the primary preoccupation of feminists (in reality, the number of bras burned by feminists in the history of the struggle for gender equality appears to be zero, or as close to it as makes no difference).
So what do digital rights activists want, if not "free information?"
They want open access to the data and media produced at public expense, because this makes better science, better knowledge, and better culture – and because they already paid for it with their tax and licence fees.
They want to be able to quote, cite and reference earlier works because this is fundamental to all critical discourse.
They want to be able to build on earlier creative works in order to create new, original works because this is the basis of all creativity, and every work they wish to make fragmentary or inspirational use of was, in turn, compiled from the works that went before it.
They want to be able to use the network and their computers without mandatory surveillance and spyware installed under the rubric of "stopping piracy" because censorship and surveillance are themselves corrosive to free thought, intellectual curiosity and an open and fair society.
They want their networks to be free from greedy corporate tampering by telecom giants that wish to sell access to their customers to entertainment congloms, because when you pay for a network connection, you're paying to have the bits you want delivered to you as fast as possible, even if the providers of those bits don't want to bribe your ISP.
They want the freedom to build and use tools that allow for the sharing of information and the creation of communities because this is the key to all collaboration and collective action — even if some minority of users of these tools use them to take pop songs without paying.
IWTBF has an elegant compactness and a mischievous play on the double-meaning of "free," but it does more harm than good these days.
Better to say, "The internet wants to be free."
Or, more simply: "People want to be free."