‘Information wants to be free.’ It’s time we bury the phrase forever

“Information wants to be free.”

The phrase has become the rallying cry of the internet industry. It’s also overstayed its welcome and needs to die.

These famous words were coined in 1984 by American writer Stewart Brand, but their meaning has been warped over time.

Here is the phrase, placed in its full context:

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.

What started out as an astute observation soon became a religious mantra for the tech faithful.

It’s unsurprising that people remember the “free” part of the spiel. No one likes expensive things. No one likes parting with their hard-earned money.

And so the meme spread. The internet gave us many free things, wonderful things. It spawned the open-source software movement. It gave us Google, Facebook, and Instagram.

But “free” is an illusion.

The open-source movement is great. But its proponents still need to make a living.

Those “free” services I spoke of? They’re mining you for data and flooding your screens with ads.

“Free” has spawned the unethical tech idols that we used to worship.

Now, I’ve an agenda for writing this. I’m a journalist by trade. Tech in Asia makes money from content. What set me off was when some technologists insisted that content paywalls are evil.

How sanctimonious.

These same people are making money by charging for software they’ve crafted with their own hands.

It’s also a fact that many tech companies have, at least in their early days, thrived on piracy before becoming “legit.”

This mindset has been devastating. As the tech industry rose, the media industry embraced “free.” But no one can beat the tech titans at their own game.

Information wants to be saved. Newsrooms shrank, and quality journalism fizzled into clickbait, dumb pop quizzes, and pseudo-scientific claptrap. Social media fanned the flames of free but often fake news – churned out by shady political operatives.

People got used to “free.” They insisted on free content, even as they pay for their taxes, their clothes, and that Starbucks latte.

People forget that information, and especially quality information, wasn’t always free. Reading a newspaper costs money.

They forget that “free” content is subsidized in some way – either by a company, through advertising, or as part of a marketing agenda.

They rail against ads and paywalls – forgetting that journalism has to be funded in some way.

Do they expect us to beg for donations? Please.

These people are, however, a shrinking minority. The media industry is taking charge. It’s realizing that it can put a price tag on content and make a decent business out of it.

A paywall isn’t a silver bullet. Paywalled publications can still be biased, partisan, and sensational. But it’s proving to be a viable solution to an intolerable status quo.

The Armageddon scenario of a fully gated internet is scaremongering. The media landscape will be diverse and serve different needs.

Some publications will be free-to-access, others will be completely locked up, and many will be somewhere in between.

Information can be free. It can sometimes be expensive.

But it can most certainly be affordable.