“Hackers” and “Information Wants to Be Free”

The most famous phrase in the book wasn’t mine. And it wasn’t in the book.

Steven Levy
Nov 21, 2014 · Unlisted

In my more indulgent moments I can tick off a few career highlights. I found Einstein’s brain. Bill Gates once threw a pencil at me. I interviewed Bob Marley. I wrote books on artificial life, the Macintosh, Google, and the crypto wars of the 1990s. Oh, and I started Backchannel.

Er, not exactly. Like “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca, the exact phase isn’t in the book. Though inspired by Hackers, the famous words were actually uttered by someone else—when I called on him in what was to be a legendary group discussion. On the 30th anniversary of Hackers I thought the story worth recounting, because even though the words were not mine, it became indelibly intertwined with the exciting—and frustrating—release of the book.

Thirty years ago, I took a plane to San Francisco. It was the eve of publication for Hackers. I had worked like a madman for two years to produce it. I thought I was documenting a new kind of American hero, and I could hardly wait for the world to acknowledge my work. In an airport newsstand before boarding, I spotted a copy of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. At the time they sold copies a week in advance. I bought one, on the odd chance it would contain a review of Hackers.

Indeed, as I opened it on the plane, I found my work considered in the “Books in Brief” section. The reviewer was a woman whose name I had not heard of before or since. She dismissed Hackers in a few paragraphs, managing to imply that the book wasn’t even worth that much attention. The words that stick in my mind are “overblown magazine article.”

It was the longest plane ride of my life. My first book was dead in the water. I was convinced (correctly) that my publisher would devote virtually no marketing resources. (Indeed, I would not make a single radio or television appearance to promote Hackers.) I felt like turning around at SFO and going back home, even though my destination was an event that promised to be thrilling. It was to be a conference inspired by my book. The Whole Earth Review’s Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Ryan Phelan had organized a once-in-a-lifetime retreat that would unite the three generations of hackers I had written about in my book. Many of the key subjects would be there, some of them meeting each other for the first time. It shaped up to be the ultimate book party.

At that moment, though, I felt as if I was attending a funeral.

My mood lifted dramatically as I arrived at the former army camp on the Marin Headlands, where the Hackers Conference would commence. Almost every person attending was an amazing hacker, many of whom I had gotten to know through often cathartic interviews. Everyone was ebullient to be connecting with like-minded wizards. I couldn’t help but get swept up in that excitement. Also, everyone was given a copy of the book. Though I got a year’s worth of corrections in a few hours, my subjects also congratulated me on capturing the essence of who they were.

By the time the hackers had gathered for a huge discussion on the first morning, I was a dizzy passenger on the high spirit bus.

Even then, the word “hacker” was under attack. The room was totally appalled that the media was starting to define the word as “evil little grub who breaks into computers.” But then we began to discuss the part of the Hacker Ethic that states, “Information Should be Free.” Some of the early hackers I had written about felt that software should literally be free. (Among the people in the room was Richard Stallman, who would later found the Free Software Foundation.) Yet in my book I documented how hackers of later generations were not shy about profiting from their creations. I wrote about the impact of that shift on the pure joy of hacking.

Bob Wallace.

The conversation turned to the recent idea of freeware and shareware. Two of the people in the room were pioneers in this practice. (Sadly, both of them—Andrew Flugelman and Bob Wallace— are lost to us now.) They explained how each of their schemes operated. Wallace ended his comments by expressing concern that his small company might not be able to scale with such practices.

Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, responded to this by noting that sometimes for-profit companies deny the public great programs just because they don’t fit a certain market. “The companies, because they own the product, will squash it and say, ‘You cannot have it, even though we’re not going to put it out, and nobody else in the world’s going to get it.’ That’s a hiding of information, and that is wrong,” said Wozniak.

That’s when Stewart Brand stood up and spoke for the first time in the session. Here’s what he said:

It seems like there’s a couple of interesting paradoxes we’re working with here. That’s why I’m especially interested in what Bob Wallace has done with PC-WRITE and what Andrew Flugelman did before that with PC-TALK. 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.

Wozniak had a reply: “Information should be free but your time should not.”

I recently contacted Brand to discuss his statement. As I suspected, Brand’s remark was off the cuff, a hack on “Information Should Be Free,” which I wrote as part of The Hacker Ethic. “I was indeed riffing on ‘Information Should Be Free’ in your book, only starting with Steve’s case for expensive,” he wrote me.

Woz: “That’s a hiding of information, and it’s wrong.”

Brand and Wozniak had a back and forth for a while, talking about the conflict between programmers and marketers. The conversation flitted around for a while—Wozniak ending that particular exchange by noting that a true hacker wrote code for a “market of one he’s very close to” (himself)—and the conversation went on to other topics. (You can read the whole thing here, by the way.) But Brand’s incisive comment would not be forgotten.

Still, no one in that room understood that Brand had uttered a phrase that would remain steadily viral for thirty years.

Brand: “The right information at the right place just changes your life.”

Indeed. The phrase has been describe as “a battle cry for the relentless march of the Internet”; “The single dominant ethic in this [digital] community”; and “the defining slogan of the information age.” Historian Adrian Johns has tied the sentiment to the earliest days of digital culture: “If we think ‘information wants to be free,’ then we voice a sentiment championed by Wiener, Polanyi and Plant,” he wrote. Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, devoted a chapter of his bestselling book (Free) to the phrase. Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning once used the phrase in an online chat to explain his prodigious leaking. Agent and publisher John Brockman once wrote that the phrase “became a mantra, it became an ideology, for some it’s a religion, for others it’s a cashbox for stock or speaker fees.” And just a few weeks ago Cory Doctorow released a book entitled, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. (“It’s time for it to die,” writes Doctorow. Fat chance.)

For me, Brand’s remark has had lasting impact because it reflected something I saw as key to Hackers: the drama that comes when commerce thwarts people’s impulse to share their creations, and limits those who build upon the work of others.

The author

I might take issue with that. But I do appreciate that Hackers is still part of the conversation. And so is Stewart Brand’s remark at that wonderful Hackers Conference, which I so badly needed to attend in November 1984. The argument of whether information wants to be free, should be free, should be paywalled or should be expensive. It is still a vital argument.

Quite a turnaround from my despair on the way to San Francisco on that November day. I never would have dared dream that my book would still be around 30 years later. And some readers even pay for it.

Photos of 1984 Hackers Conference by Matt Herron.

Follow Backchannel: Twitter | Facebook


Mining the tech world for lively and meaningful tales and analysis.

Thanks to Sandra Upson


    Steven Levy

    Written by

    Writing for Wired, Used to edit Backchannel here. Just wrote Facebook: The Inside Story.


    Mining the tech world for lively and meaningful tales and analysis.

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade