Does Information Want To Be FREE? Should It Be?
In 1968, in the United States, during that country’s counter-cultural revolution, the writer Steward Brand began publishing the Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine that included, among other things, articles about DIY projects that focused on ecology, and carried the tag line “access to tools.” The articles were essentially manuals on how to build new forms of technology or ways to adapt existing technology to increase efficiency or better address a specific problem. These short manuals were not too many steps removed from the kind of manufacturing blueprints that, until then, had been proprietary information, the backbone of any tool manufacturer’s enterprise. The Whole Earth Catalog, in addition to seeking to turn traditionally environmentally unfriendly technology into more responsible tools, also sought to liberate the hold over the designs and construction plans of these tools from the profit-minded companies who made them.
It’s not an entirely crazy line of thinking, especially when put in the context of the ecological movement. After all, much more was and is at stake than corporate profit. And for much of civilization, new technologies weren’t patented and sold for profit: communities shared new methods and tools with each other, all with an aim towards helping everyone. That communal spirit has eroded quite a bit since the dawn of the industrial revolution, but Brand—and many like-minded people in a variety of contemporary socio-political movements—don’t believe it should have.
Many years later, Brand famously asserted that “information wants to be free,” a phrase that has since been co-opted by Lawrence Lessig’s “Free Culture” movement and a variety of hacker groups. Brand expanded on the idea contained within the phrase as follows: “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.”
These two “hands” are the essence of the ongoing global conversation about information and access to it: how do we make the world better with new and helpful forms of information while at the same time ensuring that the people who put in the time and effort to discover and crystalize those new forms of information are fairly compensated for the time and effort they put into producing that information. The obvious objection to this construct, especially in the context of Permaculture, is that the entire system of compensation and labor is entirely flawed. And it’s an objection I agree with wholeheartedly.
But that objection doesn’t make the reality that we live in, by which I mean market capitalism, any less impactful on our lives and work. Yes, in a perfect world, new technology, new tools, and information about and how to use them would be both free and widely available. Beyond that, the people responsible for that information wouldn’t be even remotely worried about their own livelihood as they did the work necessary to create that information.
But our economic model prevents this perfect world from existing. Market capitalism demands that we, as individuals, organizations, and communities, pay for our necessities if we are unable to provide them for ourselves. Permaculture, and all farming, really, aims to enable people to provide at least one necessity—nutritional sustenance—for themselves, and there’s every reason to believe that through our efforts and an expanding understanding and adapting of our practices, more and more people can and will achieve this form of self-sufficiency. But that doesn’t eliminate certain other financial burdens essential to our well being. Shelters cost money. Clothes costs money. Tools and materials that enable farming cost money. And as wonderful as it would be if we could exchange surplus food for these other essential items, our economy has not evolved in that way, and the costs of production often outweigh the determined market value of the food we farm. Merely breaking even—keeping our homes, staying warm, being able to keep the farms functioning—is often a challenge. It’s a truly rewarding challenge, but a challenge nonetheless.
One place to look for a practical model of the distribution of information’s value in relation to its utility to civilization is the way drug patents are handled. Creating new drugs costs a truly staggering amount of time and resources. It would be fantastic if government funded university research facilities were able to do it all themselves, with the support of citizens’ tax dollars, but the need is too great and the university facilities too few. So instead we have for-profit companies that research, develop, and of course sell drugs to the general public. Their goals are profits, certainly, and yet their products are life-changing and live-saving. They are absolutely essential, and their value, in market terms, should be accordingly high. The vast majority of governments, however, have issued laws restricting the amount of profit a company is entitled to make off any given drug, though lawmakers have generally (lobbyists still have their influence) agreed to allow for enough profit to cover the costs of research and development. Additionally, most drug patents expire after just a few years, meaning that generic versions of these important products can be mass produced and sold at a significantly lower price, which helps get the necessary drugs to waiting patients. This solution is far from perfect, but it does succeed in compensating the creators of the valuable product (let’s not ignore the fact that the scientists doing the research and development have been through years and years of schooling to be able to contribute) while recognizing the inherent need to make the information available to as many people as possible. Most importantly, it guarantees that a system is in place to keep the production of information flowing.
What Brand framed as competing notions can and need to work hand in hand, not against each other. It’s only fair to assign a market value to them, no matter how noble the contents. Why? Because that’s the only way to ensure that the information will continue to be made available