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The Future of Ideas

November 26th, 2002

I’ve posted my review of Lawrence Lessig’s new book The Future of Ideas at UQ. It was originally published in the Financial Review which, paradoxically enough given the subject matter, is subscription-only. A short take:

The great paradox of the information age was apparently first summarised in 1984, by Stewart Brand, now with the Sante Fe Institute:
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.

For many years, enthusiasts for the Internet focused only on one side of this dichotomy. ‘Information wants to be free’ became first a slogan, then a cliché. In the late 1990s, as the idealism of the Internet pioneers was succeeded by the financial madness of the Internet bubble, the paradox intensified. Billions of dollars were sunk into dotcoms based on the belief that vast fortunes could be made out of giving away free information or, in other words, that you could have your Internet cake and eat it too.
On the sidelines of the Internet boom, though, were large and powerful groups who had never believed in free information. The music and motion picture industry had a long history of resisting every new technology or social development that might challenge their absolute control over their product.

To read a lot more on this topic,be sure to visit Kim Weatherall’s blog. She’s finished lectures for the year and is posting lots of interesting stuff.

Update I haven’t managed to get links to files working for the new UQ site. I’ll try and link this ASAP.

Update 2 Ken Parish has a long post on this which I missed in the chaos of my move. He makes the point that it’s a mistake to regard file-sharing services like Napster and Kazaa as heroes of freedom – they’re commercial enterprises which often use dubious money-making methods like spyware.
On the other hand, I think Ken gives too much credence to the concept of intellectual property. The idea that intellectual property is like property in land misses the valid component of the claim that ‘information wants to be free’, namely that information is ‘nonrival’ inuse. If I use your land as a football field, you can’t use it for growing wheat. On the other hand, if I use your idea for a better way of growing wheat, you’re still free to use it and, if I improve on your idea you can copy it. By imposing restrictions on this free use of ideas patents and copyrights are a barrier to innovation and efficiency. On the other hand, by rewarding innovation these devices encourage more innovation (information wants to be expensive because it is valuable and costly to produce). There is a balance that needs to be struck here, and it is not helped by the spurious metaphor of ‘intellectual property’.

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