Why does “information want to be free”?
I think the phrase is a good way of explaining to most people that information is really hard to treat like property. The cost of reproduction and transportation is absurdly low, thus it is trivial to distribute freely, in the sense of “free as in free beer.” Additionally, the costs of production of certain kinds of information can be absurdly high, which is at odds with the costs of reproduction, which is negligible. This leads us to the core of the current debacle about intellectual property: How to incent and compensate the producers of costly-to-produce yet cheap-to-reproduce information, while not giving away the public right to implement stupidly obvious ideas.
There is another side to the phrase that is related to these negligible costs: The ability of information to spread incredibly quickly, to be transformed and re-combined easily, and more often than not, perish. We will refer to this ability as “free as in freedom of speech.” These properties have led Richard Dawkins to propose that ideas, or memes as he calls them, can be treated similarly to genes in biological evolution. (Dawkins considers the unit of selection to be the gene, but see here for a better explanation of units of selection.) Although Dawkins’ grand idea was at least influenced from elsewhere, he has succeeded in popularizing the notion that information residing in our minds has many characteristics required by Darwin’s principle of evolution: Reproduction with heritability, variation, and competition for limited resources (mindshare in business lingo).
It is popular, in talking about the evolutionary process, to impart intent or desire upon the objects under selective pressure, because it makes it easier to explain. This is what Steven Jay Gould describes (in his article Caring Groups and Selfish Genes) as “perpetuating, albeit more colorfully than most, a metaphorical shorthand used (perhaps unwisely) by all popular writers on evolution.” I suppose that if I am going to faulted in perpetuating the meme “information wants to be free” it should be for accepting the use of such metaphorical shorthand.
Infreemation and the potential benefits of selection
Mimetic evolution requires a selective pressure, such as competition for limited mindshare. This pressure sorts through a large and diverse population of candidate memes (made possible thanks to the very low cost of hiring MBAs …I mean…the low cost of reproducing, re-combining and mutating memes). Evolutionary pressure thus favours the extirpation of most memes, and leaves us with those that are very lucky or that are best suited to their environment (i.e. the brain of an MBA). An efficient grim reaper is responsible and necessary for the principle of “the survival of the fittest.”
Take this blog, for instance. The memes originating here are not exactly speading like wildfire. Most will persist in a sort of suspended animation until the site is taken down by the copyright (thought) police, in which case they will likely die for eternity, after persisting in Google’s cache for a few extra weeks. But the eternal optimist writing this hopes that a few of the memes that I “rip, mix and burn” will be successful in the unfair, meme eat meme, wild kingdom in which they compete to survive, perchance to thrive.
Blogging is like sex: How to maximize the success of your mimetic offspring
Communication is like sex between brains. To maximize mimetic offspring, a blogger should read and write often on a variety of topics (reproduce lots of memes) while “making them your own*” (mutation, a key source of variation) and especially drawing new connections where none previously existed (genetic re-combination, another important source of variation). Blogging in the right place at the right time will help (the luck factor) and so will controlling your environment (the spin factor). Finally, it helps if you have a large audience (larger opportunity to find a suitable habitat). And by all means, remember to practice safe blogging, so play nice!
*not in the sense of property or posession, but meaning you should add your special sauce, ideally intelligence or wit…
Thanks again to Pacanukeha’s insightful commentary which has inspired me to further explore the question at the heart of “infreemation:”