Information wants to be free…

Why dinosaurs are still trying to rule the web

When Stewart Brand made his iconic and oft quoted remark to Steve Wozniak, at the Hacker’s Conference in 1984 he prefaced it by also saying: “… information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life.”

In his entire sentence he encapsulated the dynamics of the challenge presented by the digital age. Before the internet came along information was locked in the hands of giant gatekeepers. They were giant because they needed to gain our trust and size (and expense) seemed to be a good way to do that. They were gatekeepers because their size and money allowed them to gather information and lock it so securely that it could only be accessed in a controlled way, determined by them.

If you loved the BBC you had to be living in the UK, own a TV set and pay the license fee. A condition so inviolable that you could not buy a TV set anywhere in the UK without the retailer recording the transaction and making your details (including name and address available to the government). Unmarked vans with sophisticated telemetry equipment regularly swept neighborhoods looking for those who had, somehow, managed to evade the net and watched TV without having paid a license fee.

If the content of the New York Times floated your boat you had to, well live in NYC or arrange for an expensive subscription that shipped the hard copy of your favorite paper to you with a day or two of delay because ‘news’ was new only when you consumed it at the appointed time and the manner approved by its publishers.

Information in that world was definitely not free.

The internet changed all of that. By allowing us to connect and network at a personal level it brought the costs of information gathering and publishing down with a crash. It also rendered the gatekeepers redundant, their channels of content suddenly useless and left them scrambling to catch up.

With trust eroding in anything large and institutionalized you’d think we are now home, free. Ready to make the world we want to see. But that is not so.

The dinosaurs did not just keel over and faded away just because a rock from space struck their home world. As they struggled to morph into birds they also put up the fiercest fight possible for resources using everything a 200-million-year long stint had endowed them with until it was evident that it was not going to be enough.

When Verlag used its lobbying power to try and force EU legislature that would make Google pay for each link it showed in its search engine, its insanity was within the remit of the dinosaurs’ last gasp. Their attempt was to use copyright laws designed to protect content creators to force Google to stop making information free.

When that particular type of madness backfired and they bowed to Google because they lost traffic to their websites they continued the fight using the same anti-trust impetus that eventually led to the execrable “Right to be Forgotten”.

Now here comes this: “The W3C’s project is called EME, for encrypted media extensions. This is a way of restricting the playback of video in browsers, and for a given EME version to work, it has to have the blessing of the entertainment giants.

This is yet another last gap by the behemoths that controlled the past to try and make the future theirs. Every content creator, every gatekeeper of the past makes the same cognitive mistake the dinosaurs made when they fought against the planet, new, emerging life forms and each other in their struggle to survive: The failure to grasp that size no longer matters.

The internet was the rock from outer space that destroyed the old Gatekeepers. For their plans to succeed they need what they have always needed: us. Passive, accepting, feeling small, powerless to affect things. But we too have evolved in the digital age. We’ve become more visible, more vocal and more determined to not go back to the past we’ve left behind.

So, for a new browser to succeed. For the old Gatekeepers to find a new means of caging us they need us. And we no longer play by the old rules. We understand the cost of producing information (and for the sake of argument we shall include entertainment content in this definition). And when it comes to accessing it we want that cost to be determined differently the reward given to those who provide what we want, determined by value rather than scarcity. The beginning of the end of Gatekeepers has started. Beware of their last gasp.

My latest book is called The Tribe That Discovered Trust — How Trust is Created, Propagated, Lost and Regained in Commercial Interactions.

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