The coming economic crisis in information
I enjoyed reading Adam Rifkin’s back of the envelope calculations about personal information storage and processing. I’m looking forward to trying to make at least a few of the @20 Gigabytes of information I will deal with in my life really count. I know a lot of it is already a write off, but since I cancelled my cable TV subscription last year I think I might stand a chance.
Aside from reassuring me that the businesses of storing, transmitting, sorting and searching information will probably continue to grow, this article’s discussion of dealing with the global sum total of information produced yearly made me wonder some more about the very current and pertinent intelletual property wars: when information becomes dirt cheap to store, transmit and share how do you control its use?
Technology has changed the economics of information
The friction of the global information system is asymptotically approaching zero, but the costs passed on to consumers are being maintained artificially high (reminds me of the diamond market…or try subscribing to an academic journal). Even the prices being charged for IP are nowhere near inline (in most cases) with the costs of producing intellectual property. Drugs are priced so high that most people have to wonder if the drug companies care about public health at all.
This trend of suprisingly low costs to generate intellectual property is what is causing all the latest bruhaha:
-The patent land grab (see EFF patent site)
-Ridiculous extensions of copyrights (Larry Lessig with lots to say here)
-Disingenuous litigation (SCO etc…)
-Fatally Flawed DRM schemes (see Cory Doctorow’s MSFT talk)
-dot coms created on an idea, poorly executed, with intent to cash out early
Its quite cheap for a company with cash in the bank to pursue these tactics, while the reward for success is astronomically high. The profit margins on this stuff just KEEP GROWING!
As the economics change so must we
As a society we need to change what we value, recognizing:
1) Ideas are cheap, and even really tricky ideas are almost always converged upon my multiple people at the same time (see the radio controversy with Marconi and Tesla, or Darwin and Wallace in the race to describe evolution).
2) Industries that are intelligently and SUSTAINABLY built and operated, using REAL accounting, that have tangible benefits for real people, are damn rare in today’s world where we are all too eager to mortgage the future for a quick payday.
If only we could find a way to rewards those who make the world a better place. And punish those who hold hostage ideas that could cure disease or reduce our impact on the environment or auction them off to the highest bidder.
While much government legislation is focusing now on restrictions of the flow of information (i.e. the Induce Act) it seems that society would benefit far more by reducing these artificial barriers to sharing information. Information is like water running downhill, it will take the path of least resistance, and no matter how many little dams you build it will eventually reach the bottom of the hill. As John Perry Barlow put it: “information wants to be free” which is why i like to call it “infreemation.” You can’t fight its fundamental nature. Cheap technology is going to have an effect on information that superconductors have on electricity.
Please don’t equate what I am saying with supporting music piracy or halting compensation for intellectual innovators. There are lots of ways for these people to be compensated. The current systems for creating, owning and selling IP simple do not work well, and we sorely need open debate about new systems that will continue to stimulate creativity with economic incentives.
Are the rich getting nervous?
An important part of the phenomenon of the “rich getting richer” has to do with the control of information. Keeping profitable information secret, and attempting to control the information available to the rest of the population. To borrow and mutate a famous turn of phrase: not all information is created equal, some is more equal than the rest.
If anything has ever threatened the incredible and widening gap between the wealthy and the rest, the spread of information by its very nature (helped by human activities such as education) may act as a grand leveller. Phenomena such as open source software, creative commons licences, developments at WIPO (world intellectual property organization), blogging and the related technologies of easy syndication and reputation networks are all examples of infreemation busting through cracks in the Intellectual Property dam. Things really are poised to change dramatically as a result of technologies that allow infreemation to reach its potential.
Credit where credit is due
The creation of new ideas or modes of expression does not occur in a vacuum. It is not as arcane as those trying to protect “intellectual property” would have you think. As a student of science, I think claiming ownership of an idea is kind of silly since it is generally “built on the shoulders of giants” or results from blind luck while working on a completely different line of research. Most students of the arts would probably also emphasize both influences and mistakes as important in leading to their novel creations. Bottom line is that as individuals we are each the emergent property of interactions between genetics, organismal biology and our environments. It would be bravado indeed for us to claim sole individual ownership over an idea given the importance of nature, nuture and society in producing us, the very agents of ideas. Indeed similar bravado is at work these days in the patenting of modified organisms.
As for music, software and movie piracy, once again I don’t condone these activities, but I also don’t think we should worry too much about saving those industries from the effects of new technologies. The current business models for these industries are going to be extremely shortlived. Are there profitable and sustainable business models that exist for content and idea based industries such as the arts and sciences without invoking draconian notions of information ownership? Definitely, and we will find out what they are, sooner or later, through an evolutionary process.
The information revolution is only about to begin.