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2010-05-24 Information Wants To Be Free Is Becoming An Axiom

Northern Gannet (fou de Bassan) on Rouzic Island

"Information wants to be free" is now becoming an axiom

The last article "Saying information wants to be free does more harm than good" from Cory Doctorow on rings a bell to me. It seems that we still don't often understand what's the profound meaning of this mantra or expression is. One of the origin for this expression could be around the fifties from Peter Samson claimed : Information should be free.

When Steven Levy published his book : "Hackers, heroes of the computer revolution", the chapter "The Hacker Ethic" includes a section called "All information should be free" in reference to The Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) where Peter Samson was a member. The explanation made by Steven Levy:

The belief, sometimes taken unconditionally, that information should be free was a direct tribute to the way a splendid computer, or computer program, works: the binary bits moving in the most straightforward, logical path necessary to do their complex job. What was a computer but something which benefited from a free flow of information? If, say, the CPU found itself unable to get information from the input/output (I/O) devices, the whole system would collapse. In the hacker viewpoint, any system could benefit from that easy flow of information.

A variation of this mantra was made by Stewart Brand in a hacker conference 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

We could even assume that the modified mantra was a direct response to Steven Levy's book and to his chapter "The Hacker Ethic" (ref. mentioned in a documentary called "Hackers - Wizards of the Electronic Age"). The mantra or the aphorism was used in past twenty-five years by a large community. The application of the mantra by the GNU project is even mentioned in various documents including again the book from Steven Levy.

Regarding the last article from Cory Doctorow, why he doesn't want that make an emphasis on the information but on people's freedom. I agree to that point of view but the use of "information wants to be free" is a different matter. I want to take it on a different angle, information is not bound to physical properties like the physical objects are. By the effect of being liberated from the physical rules, information tends to be free.

Of course, this is not real axiom but it's not far away from being an axiom. If you are looking for the current issues in "cyberspace", this is always related to that inner effect of information. Have you seen all the unsuccessful attempts to make DRM (digital restrictions management or digital rights management depending of your political view) working? All attempts from the dying music industry to shut-down OpenBitTorrent or any open indexing services? or even the closing of newzbin where at the same time the source code and database leaked? or the inability to create technology to protect privacy (the techniques are not far away from the missing attempts done by DRM technologies)?

Yes, "information wants to be free", just by effect and we have to live with that fact. I personally think it is better to abuse this effect than trying to limit the effect. It's just like fighting against gravity on earth…