Information wants to be free my ass

Never before in history have people paid as much for information as they do today.

I’m guessing that by the time you reached the end of that sentence, you found yourself ROFLAO. I mean, WTF, this the Era of Abundance, isn’t it? The Age of Free. Digital manna rains from the heavens.

Sorry, sucker. The joke’s on you.

Do the math. Sit down right now, and add up what you pay every month for:

-Internet service

-Cable TV service

-Cellular telephone service (voice, data, messaging)

-Landline telephone service

-Satellite radio

-Netflix

-Wi-Fi hotspots

-TiVO

-Other information services

So what’s the total? $100? $200? $300? $400? Gizmodo reports that monthly information subscriptions and fees can easily run to $500 or more nowadays. A lot of people today probably spend more on information than they spend on food.

The reason we fork out all that dough is (I’m going to whisper the rest of this sentence) because we place a high monetary value on the content we receive as a result of those subscriptions and fees.

Now somebody remind me how we all came to think that information wants to be free.

It’s a strange world we live in. We begrudge the folks who actually create the stuff we enjoy reading, listening to, and watching a few pennies for their labor, and yet at the very same time we casually throw hundreds of hard-earned bucks at the saps who run the stupid networks through which the stuff is delivered. We screw the struggling artist, and pay the suit.

Somebody’s got a good thing going.

UPDATE: Alan Jacobs, over at Text Patterns, adds an interesting gloss to this post:

One of Nick’s commenters suggests that his point is misleading because we’re not paying all that much per bit of data. That’s probably true, but it may not make the point the commenter wants it to make. Consider an analogy to restaurant dining: Americans in the past twenty years have spent far, far more on eating out than any of their ancestors did, and that’s a significant development even if you point out that huge portions of fat-laden food mean that they’re not paying all that much per calorie. In fact, that analogy may work on more than one level: are we unhealthily addicted to information (of any kind, and regardless of quality) in the same way that we’re addicted to fatty foods?

Back when we were more conscious of what particular bits of information we were spending our information dollars on was our information diet (so to speak) healthier than it is today when we buy tickets to all-you-can-eat buffets? I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, but it’s a question worth pondering. It certainly underscores how silly it is to simply try to measure “cost per unit of information” as if that alone tells us anything. Unless, of course, you believe that every unit of information is identical in terms of quality and value.

36 Comments

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36 Responses to Information wants to be free my ass

  1. SteveEisner

    Maybe my attention-disordered brain missed something while I skimmed this. But isn’t that exactly the point: that once you’ve paid for the costs of transport, the rest is “just bits”? I’m not nearly as versed in this ecosystem as you are but it seems to me that the cost per bit has never been closer to free. Nor have we ever had so much access to -everything- (composed of bits) for so little cost. Maybe information wants to be “free (plus shipping & handling)”

    Your greater point stands. Why are we willing to pay high bills for a pipe but not its contents? I’d guess that it’s because that uber-bill you listed accounts for access to everything digital, an offering that no single artist/producer/etc. could compete against. I do think that eventually the product costs will be bundled into the “handling” costs – sort of like an eBay auction for a 1 cent item.

  2. Remember how the rise of the Internet signalled the Golden Age of Content producers?

    Hey, it turns out the aggregators and pipeline people are the ones getting rich – while the content producers are left to munch contentedly on repeated helpings of Top Ramen.

    To point this out is to risk the wrath of the Internet Utopians, who chirpily suggest content producers simply aren’t adapting fast enough.

  3. mdierken

    Water wants to run downhill. But that didn’t stop mills from springing up (eventually). Still, the head of the flow isn’t getting paid.

  4. Stanleydavid

    Yes, I am agree with you!

    Today, as we know as the Information Age … the information itself is high-price!

    Should we change the naming of this age ..

    “The High-Pay Information Age” ???

  5. Gary

    I still subscribe to several print magazines and newspapers in addition. One such magazine costs $89/year in print and only $19/on line pdf. Such a ratio suggests that a large portion of information is the delivery mechanism and maybe spending $300 a month on delivery corresponds to $75 a month for content.

  6. I recall the early radicals of “free culture” saying that information on the internet would be “too cheap to meter.” That’s an old slogan from the early days of the nuclear power industry, they claimed that soon electricity would be too cheap to meter.

    Well of course the freetards do everything they can to make information too cheap to meter, while they fail to notice, as you have, that the cost burden just shifted to the channel. The medium is the moneymaker.

  7. ampressman

    Oy vey, what a mix of apples, oranges and bananas. Content creators are still making a lot of money even from the media mentioned here.

    Cable TV, Netflix and satellite radio take much of the dough you give them and immediately pay out most of it to content creators. Howard Stern isn’t free and he’s making out quite well, thank you very much. There’s just a bundling of content behind a subscription price. The cable TV model has been around for a long, long time (and been raising prices faster than inflation for as long as I can remember).

    Another group of services mentioned, basically telephone services and the email/chat aspect of Internet services, are utilities for communication, not generally considered “information” — certainly not the kind of information people used to pay for but now don’t.

    Even on the plain old Internet, plenty of content creators and content retailers, from ESPN to iTunes to the Wall Street Journal, charge additional fees for their creative output.

    Finally, I am so tired of people like Carr only referring to half of Stewart Brand’s brilliant insight: “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.” The implication is not that information should be free or will be free but that distribution costs are lower than ever.

  8. pwb

    Not a very compelling post. I’ve gotten rid of numerous magazine and newspaper subscriptions (as I believe have others). No local or long distance phone service. No premium cable. Etc. But the other obvious flaw in the argument is that it avoids the “cost per unit of information” deflation.

    But I do understand that Nick mainly aims for contrarian provocativeness.

  9. Finally, I am so tired of people like Carr only referring to half of Stewart Brand’s brilliant insight

    Gee whiz. I thought this post was about the second half of Brand’s statement.

    And who are these “people like Carr” anyway?

    I’ve gotten rid of numerous magazine and newspaper subscriptions (as I believe have others). No local or long distance phone service. No premium cable.

    Are you suggesting, through extrapolating from your personal experience, that the average person spends less overall for information today than, say, thirty years ago? Because if you are, then I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.

    But I do understand that Nick mainly aims for contrarian provocativeness.

    If you replaced “mainly” with “sometimes,” then I’d be compelled to agree with you.

  10. Jim McCoy

    Are you suggesting, through extrapolating from your personal experience, that the average person spends less overall for information today than, say, thirty years ago? Because if you are, then I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.

    I will not suggest it, I will state it flat out as a simple fact.

    People do not spend more for information today, they spend more for ubiquitous access to that information.

    If you want to spend less overall than you would have thirty years ago for several orders of magnitude more information than was available to you at that time you go out and get yourself a basic POTS phone line and AOL dialup.

    You are now spending around $40/month for a better phone rate than you got thirty years ago (you know, back when long distance was expensive) and they will even throw in services like a replacement for your circa 1980 answering machine and add in call waiting and caller ID services that we actually had to pay extra for back then. With this phone line you connect to AOL dialup at a blazing 56Kbps — almost 40X faster than the 1200 bps modems that were available in 1980 (I still remember when the Trailblazer modems hit the market and you could hit the BBS at a “fast” 2400 bps…) You now have more information at your fingertips than was available to the head of a national intelligence agency in 1980.

    If you had actually examined that joke of an article from Gizmodo you would have noticed that the person counting up all of the charges was incredibly stupid, paying numerous times for the same information in different formats and through different pipes and paying for more gadgets than they need or could even reasonably put to good use; this is some mythical moron who is paying for a smartphone dataplan and nationwide wifi access (even though all major carriers in the US offer good wifi plans and places like McDonalds are making it free) but then goes and gets a netbook with its own data plan and decides that they then need an additional 3G usb dongle and data plan for same.

  11. Total for me? About 40 GBP, ~65 USD per month. No TV, no Tivo or equivalent, no cable, no mobile phone contract (pay as you go, and I don’t use it often), no netflix or equivalent, no wifi hotspots. If I need mobile internet, it’s 1 EUR / day for up to 50MB, which is enough for what I’d want to browse when mobile (blogs, transport service info).

    Primary expense is pro-level internet service with static IP (=> can run servers) and right for unlimited sharing for co-located people in my home.

  12. jchalifour

    I never thought the expression “information wants to be free” referred to cost. I’d assumed it referred to a lack of restraints on the flow or availability of information. Interesting points you raise regarding how many sources do require various fees to access it.

  13. Ampressman said: “The implication is not that information should be free or will be free but that distribution costs are lower than ever.”

    Hear, hear. Thanks for posting the full quote, I was going to do the same until I saw yours. If anyone is interested, here’s an interesting history of Brand’s statement, including some thoughts by Brand himself on where the meme has gone: http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/IWtbF.html .

  14. Meta Tone

    Are you suggesting, through extrapolating from your personal experience, that the average person spends less overall for information today than, say, thirty years ago? Because if you are, then I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.

    The problem of course is that this isn’t a meaningful unit of analysis for the “information wants to be free my ass” provocation. Information could be getting cheaper, but we may have the desire to pay for more of it than before. Certainly disposable income has changed in thirty years and much information consumption is “leisure spending.” As for the “more than they spend on food” – it’s generally seen that food has gotten cheaper too…

    15 years ago, I spent a lot on books and music and movies and read a newspaper every day… if you scale up for changes in my income I think it’s probably the case that I spend the same amount, only now a bunch of that goes to my internet connection. Mobile phone and landline phone cost me now roughly what landline phone did then.

    That’s another key point, people like Carr forget how expensive some things used to be – like long-distance phone calls… not to mention that there’s no inflation calculation in this piece… $300 now is about $79 thirty years ago… Do we have any information consumption pricings from thirty years ago to hand, Nick?

  15. Yes, but with 500$ we today potentially & practically get access to much much much much much more information than what we got with the same money before the advent of digital age.

    Music example: 10$ a month for a music streaming service with a catalogue of 8 millions songs. Let’s say I listen to 20 different songs a day, about 600 songs a month.

    15 years ago –> 10$ = half cd = 6 songs = 1,66$ per song

    today (actual listenings) –> 10$ = 600 songs = 0,01666$ per song

    today (potential listenings) –> 10$ = 8000000 songs = 0,00000125$ per song = not free, ok…but almost, ain’t it?

    If I wanted to listen to 600 different songs, 15 years ago, I should’ve had to pay about 1,000 bucks. Or being very lucky with radio airplay.

    (yes, streaming is not owning: but isn’t owning becoming more and more superfluous?)

    With news, I think it’s quite the same.

    I think that’s why our perception of digital age as “information want to be free” is very strong. And that’s why service providers are in a better position than content providers. We’re quickly transmigrating in the “content as a service” world. They’re giving us what we want: we accept to pay those 500$, not the old ones.

  16. Jpotisch

    For a few times what I used to pay for information I now have, to one degree of separation, all the information in the world. There’s a huge difference between cost, which is absolute, and value, which is relative to what I receive in return.

    (Total pieces of information quickly and easily available to me) / (total monthly cost) has never EVER been this cheap.

  17. People do not spend more for information today, they spend more for ubiquitous access to that information.

    Huh? Are you trying to draw a distinction between paying for information and paying for access to information? There’s no distinction. They’re the same thing. If I buy a magazine, I’m paying for access to the information in that magazine. If I pay a monthly fee for internet service, I am paying for access to the information on the net.

    In absolute terms, people today pay more for information today than ever before. That contradicts the sense that many have, and that has become a popular conceit, that people are unwilling to pay for information anymore. Which is the point of my post. The question of how much relative value they derive from their outlays – the “cost per unit” question – is a very interesting question, but it’s a different question.

  18. I don’t think any of us need Gizmodo to tell us how much our internet/cellphone/cable bills are. We know how much we’re paying. That’s precisely why it’s hard to justify making any single information source a significant line item.

    I “won’t pay for information” in the same sense that I won’t pay $30 for a lobster after I buy entry to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

  19. Jim McCoy

    People do not spend more for information today, they spend more for ubiquitous access to that information.

    Are you trying to draw a distinction between paying for information and paying for access to information? There’s no distinction. They’re the same thing.

    No, I am drawing the distinction between having any access at all to information and having access to information 24/7 at any location and in any modality. Just about every line item in that phony bill was a payment for a different mode of access to the same pool of information, the bill would have been better divided into information sources and information access modes. Most of the increased cost on that list was associated with paying extra for convenience and ubiquitous IP dialtone and was not actually payment for access to any particular bit of information. Cable, DVR, Netflix, Hulu… they are all different ways of getting to the same pool of hollywood data while the 3G cellular, wifi hotspots, DSL, smartphone data plans, etc. are all different ways of getting the same internet dialtone.

    People pay more in absolute terms to get more in absolute terms. If you compare what you would pay today for the level of services that were available thirty years ago you would see that an X sized unit of information (for any arbitrary measurement X) is less expensive today than it has ever been. There is simply no honest comparison that can lead you to a different conclusion.

  20. People pay more in absolute terms to get more in absolute terms.

    OK, I think we’re in violent agreement. We both agree that people today pay more in absolute terms for information. As I explained in prior comment, that was my point in this post. Contrary to popular assumptions about people believing they shouldn’t have to pay for information, people are spending more on information today than ever before.

    To put it another way: there is a vast pool of consumer cash being spent on digital information today, but the bulk of it goes to third-party aggregators and distributors. There is a battle yet to be waged, I believe, over that pool.

  21. Meta Tone

    Someone has to call you out on this Nick – you haven’t actually provided any evidence that people were spending less than $79 a month on information 30 years ago, except by handwaving to some “average” person – which in itself is misleading because we’re not the same people any more.

    If I was a coal miner like my grandfather, then the majority of my entertainment expenditure would have been at the local club – on beer and shows… and you wouldn’t count the shows as “information” but if I watch a movie online it is?

    Of course, that $300 figure that I pulled out of Gizmodo to generate the $79 figure for 30 years ago in no way represents an average person… you’ve just made this stuff up.

    I’m not even in disagreement with your point that the pipe people seem to be making out better than the artists (although their costs probably need taking into account) – except to note that theater owners always did make more than actors, so it’s hardly that new. However, you’ve spun the whole post out using figures without any actual comparison or calculation and that makes the high horse you got on look pretty silly.

  22. Meta,

    I like to think of it as informed speculation rather than “making things up,” but of course I’m biased.

    I do, however, think I’m right.

    I was alive and somewhat conscious in the olden pre-web (and even pre-PC!) days, and I have a pretty good idea of what people we’re forking out for information (of the sort that these days is distributed in digitized form) back then. First, there were no charges for internet or cell-phone service, which are big-ticket items for most families these days. Television, such as it was, came into your house for free, through odd little disturbances in the air. Ditto for radio. No outlays there. Maybe you subscribed to your local newspaper for a couple of bucks a month. Maybe you bought the occasional paperback, for two bucks. Maybe you went to a movie, for another buck or two. Certainly you paid for a landline phone line and long-distance calls – another couple of bucks a month. And toss in another buck or two for magazine subscriptions.

    Start adding it all up, Meta, and I think you’ll find that that high horse I’ve mounted begins to look less like a silly My Little Pony and more like Shadowfax, the great white steed that Gandalf rode around on, vanquishing the forces of evil and stupidity.

  23. Daren

    People pay more in absolute terms to get more in absolute terms.

    I think the crux of people’s gut-level sense that the “you are paying more for information” idea doesn’t sit right is that the fact of more-for-more is much less important than the [real or perceived] price/Q ratio, where Q is both quantity and quality. Most of the information we’re paying more for, whether in multiple distribution channels or the same ones, is either orders of magnitude better than the information we were paying for in the past, or more likely was not available in any (reasonable-cost) form.

    This also brings up the idea of opportunity costs, which aren’t being fully considered either here or in the Gizmodo article. When I was a kid my parents bought an Encyclopedia Britannica set to have in the house, for what I imagine was a hefty cost, even amortized over many years. But nowadays having Wikipedia means you no longer need to pay to own a bound encyclopedia set. Or a physical globe (Google Earth) or atlas. Or purchase maps (Google Maps). Or pay money for postage (email). Or pay for what used to be exorbitantly expensive international calls (Skype). Or pay to develop, print and share photos (Flickr). And on and on. A fair accounting has to balance the costs of the new fees and distribution channels that make all of these things possible today (mostly for “free” once one pays the channel) against the today cost of the myriad ways we used to pay for bad, incomplete, static, high-latency versions of those kinds of information long ago, if it was available at all.

  24. imma h

    Data Transfer rates are expensive, the information is free while static.

    However, I believe the more significant point is that’s the wrong type of free:

    Information wants to be free as is freedom
    ;-)

  25. Ned Kumar

    I can agree with the statement ‘we are paying more for information today’ but not in total agreement with the rationale. Many have given the example of paying for a magazine vs paying for broadband. Well, when you bought a magazine what you got was limited content (cover to cover) and that was it. Today, when one buys access to the net – there is no limit on what, when, how on the content they have access to. There is an unlimited wealth of knowledge and information (and yes, noise too) out there for the taking without me having to spend another penny. So from this perspective, I would argue if information is costlier now than before or if it has actually become cheaper.

    Putting it in yet another context, before we had the phones, net and mobile one had to ‘spend’ money for travel, on courier etc. to either get information or convey information. Nowadays one has the luxury of a live chat or a conferencing where information is decimated at a relatively lower cost per transaction (in general).

    Now I started off with saying I agree with the statement ‘we are paying more for information today’. My agreement is by factoring in the health perspective. With the proliferation of computers, mobile tech, games etc., I do think that the current generation has more health issues (obesity, tendinitis, eye issues, stress to name a few) and spend a lot more on health in trying to be on top of the glut of information available. Now whether this should be part of the cost attributed to the information is another debate altogether :-)

  26. Chris M

    Thank you as always for a provocative post.

    Somebody earlier in the thread points out that some of these subscription services pay the content owners. The most obvious one is cable where there are famous carriage fights over pennies per subscriber.

    I think it would be interesting to look at data here more closely especially as TV is about to move to the Internet perhaps.

    For example, the theory with newspapers was once they moved online, there would be as reliable a source of advertising and subscriber revenue. That didn’t happen. Maybe it shouldn’t have–not passing judgment.

    With TV, there is reportedly some $120 billion annually in costs to produce all the video you see on film, TV, cable, DVDs, etc.. Of that, some $80 billion comes from cable subscription fees. How about that figure. Three-quarters from cable. I somehow doubt that the studios are going to bet their lives on Hulu. Better to watch TV Everywhere and how that emerges.

    This story ain’t about bits of data. It is about the ecosystem for content.

  27. It’s interesting that the distributors have managed to continually reduce their costs of distribution yet keep raising prices. You can only do that if you are operating in a monopoly-type situation. These are regulated industries, they have the help of government to keep out competition.

    But the other side of the coin is that they do ensure an ecoystem which employs lots of people. If they were open to the forces of disruption in distribution, there would be lots more people out of work. So is this good or bad? We are taught that open markets and level playing fields build the most successful companies. This clearly isn’t true in the distribution sector.

  28. Bill H.

    Great article, Nick.

    The companies raking in the large monthly subscriptions use content as marketing. Content companies are starting to push back, but they have been struggling when pushing against the likes of Google and Apple…

  29. “I “won’t pay for information” in the same sense that I won’t pay $30 for a lobster after I buy entry to an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

    Hmm. The buffet owner had to buy the lobster.

    How about Comcast and ATT etc have to pay royalties to content providers? Who wants to administer that?

    I’m a musician who gets 1000s of streams per quarter on pandora and rhapsody, and I get a buck or 2 for all these plays. Thanks, “long tail!”

    Interesting discussion here. Thanks Nick.

  30. Sam Penrose

    I keep waiting for you to discuss the work of Andrew Odlyzko, an academic specialist in the economics of information. His work is data-rich, often peer-reviewed, and directly relevant to many of your assertions here.

    http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~odlyzko/doc/eworld.html

  31. Frosty

    I’ve discussed this at length with a friend who recommended the post, I find it incredibly misguided.

    I would like to comment on a lot of it but would result in a wall of text, however having read through your further comments it’s obvious where the crux of the problem is:

    “Are you trying to draw a distinction between paying for information and paying for access to information? There’s no distinction. They’re the same thing.”

    This couldn’t be further from the truth (with respect to the internet). ISPs are content agnostic, they do not care what data they are transferring. Their job is to provide access to the internet as a service, providing that service (building and maintaining the physical and logical network) requires a LOT of money, therefore internet access costs money.

    People can then put their content on to the internet and offer it either for free in which case we pay nothing extra, or they can charge us for it, in which case we pay for the access and on top of that we pay for the content. Simply having an internet connection does not immediately give you access to all of the content online, some of it is protected and only available if you pay.

    You make out the artist to be the poor ol’ small guy who is trodden on and the networks to be the big “suits”. If an artist is stupid enough to put his content online for free then he’s not going to get paid for it!

  32. Nick

    You challenged us to do the math. I did the math, and found you’re wrong. Dead wrong.

    See: Fact Check

  33. Nick, I think most of the debate about “free” information arises from a misreading of the statement “information wants to be free”. There is really only one way that info wants to be free: the costs of storage, hosting and distribution are approaching zero. As I’m sure you know, it’s cheaper than ever for content providers to distribute information online and to store that content. Look at any blogger who has successfully reached millions of readers by paying minuscule costs for hosting her content and giving readers unrestricted access to it. And these costs are continually decreasing, theoretically approaching zero. Social networks make it even cheaper to grow a user base; the incremental costs of adding the next user/reader are practically zero from a content distribution perspective. This is really what we should all keep in mind when we say, “Information wants to be free”. This argument, about the diminishing costs of distribution and storage, do not pertain to whether media companies can build businesses around pay models or anything like that. And this argument is not relevant to discussions about the costs of content production or marketing.

    So, I guess I’m agreeing with you to some extend: Yes, as consumers we always pay through staggering Internet and cable bills. So information is really expensive, in that regard. But I think as we debate the idea of “free”, we should keep the word in its proper context.

  34. Jaime Strickmore

    I love it. Little late to the show but this is right up my alley. For $50 a month you can download thousands of dollars worth of illegal content…and then…the real kicker…throw it all away!

  35. george smythe

    Forgive me if I’m being redundant to a preceding comment, but Mr. Carr (and consequently many commenters) have misstated the meaning of the quote his article uses in its title.

    Information doesn’t want to be inexpensive, it wants to be unfettered. These two things are not the same. A little research would have revealed this. Instead, we now have more blog vomit in the world.

  36. Actually, Mr. Smythe, you’re wrong. The original quote, from Stewart Brand, goes as follows: “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.” As you can see, Brand is explicitly using “free” in its cost sense here. The distinction between “free as in beer” and “free as in speech,” an important distinction, came later.

    Yours,

    Janitor Nick, official cleaner of Rough Type comment vomit