1. When I ask students in my classes to tell me why they no longer read newspapers (and most of them do not read newspapers very often if at all), their answers reference a lack of accessibility, immediacy, and relevance. But, at the core of these answers is the real reason: newspapers cost money, and information is free.
2. The phrase “information wants to be free” dates from sometime around the publication of Steven Levy’s Hackers in 1984. That book helped popularize what thereafter came to be known as a “hacker ethic”: A loose set of programming principles that subsequently became a full-blown ethos promoting information unburdened by ownership or restriction.
The core of that ethos is this: Information is most valuable when it is most connected to other information; and, anything that prevents information from connecting to other information is inferior to anything that doesn’t prevent it. Therefore, over time, things that allow information to connect will prevail over the things that don’t. Freeware, open access, and net neutrality remain products and principles actualizing this belief.
3. Other things that are free: Air. Water (sort of). And advice.
Each of these, like information, is free wherever it is abundant and easily collected — and not free wherever it is not. A couple of minutes of compressed air, for instance, costs 75 cents at my local gas station. Bottled water is at least a dollar at the same gas station. And, while good medical advice often comes free (eat right, gets lots of exercise), a consultation with your primary care physician costs you your deductible.
4. A current question for schools and universities is whether the education they sell to students is more like the information newspapers sell to readers or more like the advice that doctors sell to patients. On one hand, information that is abundant and easily collected offers vast learning opportunities: a truly liberal-arts education. On the other hand, information that is merely preface to some subsequent, more personalized intervention (e. g., surgery by a specialist, or placement in a job) may be considered more justifiably private and protected than public and shared.
In order for universities to avoid the fate of newspapers, the information they sell to students may be slowly shifting from information that wants to be free to information that doesn’t, and from information that is abundant and easily collected to information that is neither. This latter sort of information might in part be represented by what some call insider information: stock tips, internship opportunities, names to know, places to be, numbers to call. Instead of providing free and open access to the world’s libraries, universities may find it more economically viable to provide more exclusive access to the world’s marketplaces.
5. Selling free information is hard, but it’s not impossible. Here are a couple a strategies that could help: You could try to make information that wants to be free less free (like the RIAA), or you could sell a special sort of information: information that is more valuable when kept private than when made public (like Coke). This second, “special” sort of information then conflates information and status. The more status you have, the better — just like information that wants to be free. But, also, the more status you have that other people don’t have, then even better still — unlike information that wants to be free.
Schools and universities may be way ahead of them.