Writing about the Aaron Swartz case in which, as I understand it, a boatload of journal articles were liberated from behind some kind of paywall, Carolyn Ann tells us:
The thing is, information is the bedrock of all economic activity. If people wanted information to be free, they’d create a society where competitiveness couldn’t exist.
I’ve come to the same conclusion. I differ with Carolyn Ann on whether this is a good idea:
But no one is in a rush to do that, because people, especially in western societies, like the way society is structured. Sure, it changes, but the underlying ideas are accepted. And one of those ideas is that information has value.
I, for one, don’t like the way society is structured. Society is structured on the leveraging of social and informational exclusivity. In other words, it is structured in a way that seems carefully calibrated not to play to my strong suits. That information has value is without question. It gets back to the age-old questions of exchange value and use value. I suspect most if not all of information’s exchange value rests entirely on the intellectual property regime and therefore the state. I don’t think that leaves us with use value only, because I think strategic value is the real reason information does not want to be free. As Carolyn Ann puts it:
If you’re a researcher, you probably don’t want anyone knowing you’ve read this or that paper; it might lead someone to the breakthrough they need to change the way something is done and make them a gazillionaire overnight. Or it could be fundamental research that you need to read in order to gain a leg up on others doing the same research; to the first published go the prizes and all that. So the research definitely has economic value.
What is being described here is a “winner take all” process, of a type that also probably has its origins in the state. There are a lot of other situations in which people stand to gain from playing their cards close to the vest. Many of these business models are based on exploitation of relative ignorance of the going rate for things. Although I’m not sold on the market paradigm, I am of the understanding that price transparency is a prerequisite for what they call perfect competition. So strategizing around information can itself be seen as a form of rent-seeking. The question is whether the more effective remedy in the long run is raiding the silos à la Swartz or reverse engineering the mirror shades. I think between the present and the future, both tactics will play a vital role, and I think the exploits of Swartz will be remembered for more than a few weeks.