I keep explaining this to people, but no one seems to get it. Information wants to be free. Despite what many of you may think, it is not just some hippie talk. It is not some idealistic hacker battle cry. It is not nonsense. It is a fact. When I say free, I don’t mean free as in beer. I mean free as in freedom. Information wants to flow unrestricted. Information is like a socially communicable virus – given enough time it will imprint itself on all available minds. Either that, or it will wither, die and be forgotten.
All successful modern societies are built around unrestricted flow of information. This was true since the begging of time. In the good old days, information was spread via word of mouth. If the Duke sharted in his pants at the dinner table, his kitchen staff would probably tell the story to their friends and families. From there it would spread exponentially. The next day the brown stains on Duke’s pantaloons would be the joke of the day in the village, then the nearby city, then the capitol. Eventually the king himself would know about the unfortunate farting incident in a distant province. We call this networking – it is something that people do. They get together, gossip, and exchange information.
Information takes many shapes and forms. Gossip is information. Stories are information. Songs are information. Information is something you can only own if you keep it to yourself. Sharing it with someone copies the information. That is it’s fundamental property and its purpose. Information exists to be replicated. Information that is never replicated is ultimately useless. More than that – it is usually also worthless. Keeping something a secret usually has no value. In most cases the value of a secret lies in the implications of it being revealed to the general public.
We have been honing our information exchange technologies for few centuries. At first we developed writing as a form of storage. Later we invented printing press that allowed us to mass-duplicate our stored wealth of knowledge. We developed ways to record sound, pictures and motion as well. At this point in time, the pinnacle of this evolution is the Internet – a ubiquitous network designed for one thing, and one thing only: transmitting small packets of information between distant points on the globe. The internet revolutionized data exchange because it divorced information from it’s storage media. Data can now be transmitted as digital signals, and exists in a transient state. It is still tied to physical storage anchors but it can readily shift and flow between them.
For a while, we have traded certain types of information the same way we trade physical items. Mostly because that information was tied to physical media, and not feasible to transfer otherwise. This gave rise to a whole industry based on information distribution. The internet made that whole industry irrelevant. Content distribution is a vestigial dying industry. We no longer need to buy a physical CD to listen to music. We no longer need to buy a disk to install software. It can be delivered to us as a stream of electrical impulses. Why do content producers feel the need to share their profits with some middle men? Why do information consumers need to pay distribution fees? It makes no sense. Treating information as physical products is no longer applicable. The rules have changed.
The whole concept of “intellectual property” is one big stinking nonsense. You cannot own information. I do not own the contents of this blog entry. I cannot own it any more than I can own the air I breathe. Once you read this entry, I no longer have control over it. I can ask you not to reproduce it, but you probably will anyway. And I can’t really stop you. I could try, but that would soon turn into a full time job. I actually know people who do this – they troll around online forums and torrent sites, send take down requests to youtube, rapidshare, megaupload and countless other places. But if their content is popular, it just keeps resurfacing within days, sometimes even hours.
There is only one effective way to control information – it is called “web of trust”. Restrict your content and give it only to people who you trust not to release it. Allow them to selectively grant access to it, to people they trust explicitly. If anyone breaks this trust, he or she is out. The person who granted them access is out as well. This is a social solution and it works but only on a limited scale. The bigger your network, the more likely it is that someone will leek the information, despite the peer pressure and social consequences. Unfortunately there is nothing – and I repeat, nothing else that works.
DRM is such a joke that we are not even going to talk about it here. If you think DRM is anything but a joke, you are either stupid or naive – but most likely both. Censorship could work, but only if you had full control over all information exchange channels which is impossible. Just ask every totalitarian government that has ever existed. It does not work. Even if you gain full control over the local telecommunication networks and filter their content, there will always be illegal back-channels used by dissidents and people who just want to get shit done. On the internet there are proxies, tor, freenet, encrypted vpn links and dozens of other methods to circumvent censorship.
The point here is that the internet is not just a dumb data pipe – it is a human collective. The end points of this globe spanning network are manned by human beings who do what they have been doing since the dawn of time – exchange information. It amplifies our ability to share, preserve and disseminate knowledge. You can’t censor the internet any more you can censor human communication in general. Faced with censorship, people will find ways to route around it – whether this censorship is political repression, or content protection does not matter. If it obstructs information flow, we will figure out how to bypass it.
That’s where we are at today. What is tomorrow though? I don’t know, but I can make some predictions.
Right now we have a clear distinction between data and physical loot. Loot is something you can’t download. For example, if I want an apple (a fruit) I need to go to a store and buy it or have it delivered to my house. If I want a new computer I need to purchase it’s physical components. Loot is scarce. It cannot be copied – it must be manufactured. At least for now. In the world of tomorrow however, loot will become data. This is the direction we are going to.
Our descendants won’t actually have to buy an apple. They will download an apple template, and the fruit will be made on the spot by their house’s nano-scale assembler engine one molecule at a time. Yep, we will move from a scarcity based economy to a post-scarcity based one. It will be a hell of a ride, and I am saddened by the fact I will probably not live to see it. People get their panties in a twist right now because of silly notions like “intellectual property” or piracy because they can’t wrap their heads around the fact information is no longer bound to scarce physical media. The shit is really going to hit the fan when it is finally feasible to torrent yourself a new car, or a house.
Judging how backwards we are about the information exchange and content protection this day, the transition to post-scarcity economy will probably cause collapse of many first world nations. Let’s face it, a nation which bans the nano-assembly technology will put itself in a position to be economically out-produced by a single guy with a cornucopia assembler who can convert garbage into dirt cheap, high quality technology products while sitting on his couch and browsing the web.
It will be a mighty interesting time to live in.