The Economy of Ideas: Rethinking
Property in the Digital Age (page 1 of 4)
By John Perry Barlow
Electronic Frontier Foundation
How much do we
really know about information and its natural behaviors?
Of course, information
is, by nature, intangible and hard to define. Like other such deep
phenomena as light or matter, it is a natural host to paradox. It
is most helpful to understand light as being both a particle and
a wave; an understanding of information may emerge in the abstract
congruence of its several different properties...
Freed of its containers,
information is obviously not a thing. In fact, it is something that
happens in the field of interaction between minds or objects or
other pieces of information.
Gregory Bateson, expanding on the information theory of Claude Shannon,
said, "Information is a difference which makes a difference."
Thus, information only really exists in the Delta. The making of
that difference is an activity within a relationship. Information
is an action, which occupies time rather than a state of being which
occupies physical space, as is the case with hard goods. It is the
pitch, not the baseball, the dance, not the dancer.
Even when it has been
encapsulated in some static form like a book or a hard disk, information
is still something that happens to you as you mentally decompress
it from its storage code. But, whether it's running at gigabits
per second or words per minute, the actual decoding is a process
that must be performed by and upon a mind, a process that must take
place in time.
There was a cartoon in
the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists a few years ago that illustrated
this point beautifully. In the drawing, a holdup man trains his
gun on the sort of bespectacled fellow you'd figure might have a
lot of information stored in his head. "Quick," orders
the bandit, "give me all your ideas."
Sharks are said to die
of suffocation if they stop swimming, and the same is nearly true
of information. Information that isn't moving ceases to exist as
anything but potential...at least until it is allowed to move again.
For this reason, the practice of information hoarding, common in
bureaucracies, is an especially wrong-headed artifact of physically
based value systems.
The way in which information
spreads is also very different from the distribution of physical
goods. It moves more like something from nature than from a factory.
It can concatenate like falling dominos or grow in the usual fractal
lattice, like frost spreading on a window, but it cannot be shipped
around like widgets, except to the extent that it can be contained
in them. It doesn't simply move on; it leaves a trail everywhere
economic distinction between information and physical property is
that information can be transferred without leaving the possession
of the original owner. If I sell you my horse, I can't ride him
after that. If I sell you what I know, we both know it.... More