Info: slip-slidin' away

Here’s an article about a conference in Vienna on open source—software and other-ware—as a form of social reform. It echoes the Internet’s original mantra: “Information wants to be free.” The ethos of the meeting evidently endorses share and share-alike collectivism, and the author questions it.

Forget the retro-socialist rhetoric. The old capitalism/socialism debate seems pretty anachronistic these days. However, what seems to me crucial going forward is that we have not worked out the economics of the information economy.


In the past several decades we’ve created devices that create, process, store and distribute digitized forms of nearly all information with exponentially increasing efficiency, speed, and economy. Ongoing Moore’s Law-like improvements on all fronts suggest future information systems will continue toward trivial costs for information handling. Sounds good.

But a counter movement has grown to impose on informational products the transactional standards that characterized the economy of the past. Most traditional goods were based on scarce resources like materials, energy, land and labor with fairly fixed productivity. It was easy to figure out what possession and transfer by sale meant. Even information in the form of books, magazines and newspapers had material form you could get your hands around.

So, one the one hand, you have a medium that disseminates information to nearly anywhere, to anyone, cheap. On the other, you have a business model of information products that traditionally entails a specific chunk of information, to a specific purchaser, for limited use at a specified price under the control of the disseminator. Here’s the makings of a conflict of channel inappropriate for the transactions of the product.

Now we have a legal and legislative process furiously trying to develop legal norms of information possession equivalent to past business models. Meanwhile, technology development continues to advance processes that inherently defy those old ways. Information possession is hard to nail down, and it’s hard to contain, But the issues are crucial since, by all accounts, information—intellectual capital—will be the basis of wealth and economics from here on out. The struggle is to write the rules by which value can be assessed for the intangible—knowledge—that may be the only thing that’s valuable in the future. Already 60% of the cost of a computer processor goes to amortize the cost of engineering that went into its design. Perhaps that’s why there seems to be as many IP (intellectual property) lawyers in Silicon Valley these days as there are engineers.

Biotech and nanotech won’t be any better. It’s not the things that are valuable; it’s the know-how to make them that counts. Huge battles are underway regarding the patentability (possess-ability) of discovery and knowledge about processes that are nearly fundamental natural processes. Should the discovery of genes and biological processes be patentable? Should anything that is done with the knowledge of discovered processes be licensable? Some nanotech visionaries claim that once we know how to make them with self-directed molecular manufacturing, the goods produced will be virtually free. The only saleable value will be knowledge content more advanced than the last iteration of the product.

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