Information Wants To Be Free (Of External Constraint)

I enjoyed Ezra Klein’s paen to the advertising agency, beneficent provider of revenue to the media. But I think his riff on freedom and information misses the mark:

Technology optimists like to say that “information wants to be free.” Perhaps the truer way to put it is that consumers want information to be free. And advertising makes it look free. But being free and looking free are not the same thing. In fact, they can be even more different than being free and being expensive, because at least in that comparison, the difference is obvious and easy to evaluate.

The idea is that information wants to be libre, not that information wants to be gratis. That information wants to escape the bounds of external constraint. And you see this pretty clearly. You can go back to whatever period in the history of American newsmedia that you like, and it was always the case that the facts contained in the newspaper would take a life of their own beyond the bounds of the business model du jour. The consequences of this have implications for media pricing strategy and help explain why free-or-cheap-at-point-of-sale is often the preferred strategy, but it’s not really an idea about prices. Books, which are not cheap at the point of sale, are a good example. An influential book has influence beyond the people who bought it, or who borrowed and read it. The ideas disseminate through reviews and discussions and offhand references in other people’s writing.