Last Updated: October 25th, 2018
Since the 1970s, pundits have predicted a transition to an “information economy.” The vision of an economy based on information seized the imaginations of the world’s governments. For decades now, they have been creating policies to “protect” information—stronger copyright laws, international treaties on patents and trademarks, treaties to protect anti-copying technology.
The thinking is simple: an information economy must be based on buying and selling information. Therefore, we need policies to make it harder to get access to information unless you’ve paid for it. That means that we have to make it harder for you to share information, even after you’ve paid for it. Without the ability to fence off your information property, you can’t have an information market to fuel the information economy.
But this is a tragic case of misunderstanding a metaphor. Just as the industrial economy wasn’t based on making it harder to get access to machines, the information economy won’t be based on making it harder to get access to information. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true: the more IT we have, the easier it is to access any given piece of information—for better or for worse.
It used to be that copy-prevention companies’ strategies went like this: “We’ll make it easier to buy a copy of this data than to make an unauthorized copy of it. That way, only the uber-nerds and the cash-poor/time-rich classes will bother to copy instead of buy.” But every time a PC is connected to the Internet and its owner is taught to use search tools like Google (or The Pirate Bay), a third option appears: you can just download a copy from the Internet. Every techno-literate participant in the information economy can choose to access any data, without having to break the anti-copying technology, just by searching for the cracked copy on the public Internet. If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that an information economy will increase the technological literacy of its participants.
As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room in Shanghai, behind the Great Firewall of China. Theoretically, I can’t access blogging services that carry negative accounts of Beijing’s doings, like WordPress, Blogspot and Livejournal, nor the image-sharing site Flickr, nor Wikipedia. The (theoretically) omnipotent bureaucrats of the local Minitrue have deployed their finest engineering talent to stop me. Well, these cats may be able to order political prisoners executed and their organs harvested for Party members, but they’ve totally failed to keep Chinese people (and big-nose tourists like me) off the world’s Internet. The WTO is rattling its sabres at China today, demanding that they figure out how to stop Chinese people from looking at Bruce Willis movies without permission—but the Chinese government can’t even figure out how to stop Chinese people from looking at seditious revolutionary tracts online.
And, of course, as Paris Hilton, the Church of Scientology and the King of Thailand have discovered, taking a piece of information off the Internet is like getting food colouring out of a swimming pool. Good luck with that.
To see the evidence of the real information economy, look to all the economic activity that the Internet enables—not the stuff that it impedes. All the commerce conducted by salarymen who can book their own flights with Expedia instead of playing blind-man’s bluff with a travel agent (“Got any flights after 4PM to Frankfurt?”). All the garage crafters selling their goods on Etsy.com. All the publishers selling obscure books through Amazon that no physical bookstore was willing to carry. The salwar kameez tailors in India selling bespoke clothes to westerners via eBay, without intervention by a series of skimming intermediaries. The Internet-era musicians who use the net to pack venues all over the world by giving away their recordings on social services like MySpace. Hell, look at my last barber, in Los Angeles: the man doesn’t use a PC, but I found him by googling for “barbers” with my postcode—the information economy is driving his cost of customer acquisition to zero, and he doesn’t even have to actively participate in it.
Better access to more information is the hallmark of the information economy. The more IT we have, the more skill we have, the faster our networks get and the better our search tools get, the more economic activity the information economy generates. Many of us sell information in the information economy—I sell my printed books by giving away electronic books, lawyers and architects and consultants are in the information business and they drum up trade with Google ads, and Google is nothing but an info-broker—but none of us rely on curtailing access to information. Like a bottled water company, we compete with free by supplying a superior service, not by eliminating the competition.
The world’s governments might have bought into the old myth of the information economy, but not so much that they’re willing to ban the PC and the Internet.