Insights from The Economy of Ideas

My weekend reading over the last two weeks included an essay written by John Perry Barlow that was published in Wired over 15 years ago, titled The Economy of Ideas.

What struck me about this great essay that explored issues around copyright in the digital age, is that
a) it was written at time when internet was practically a newborn - 1994. Figure Mosiac, the first web browser, wasn't even a year old,

how the issues that John raised we haven’t even really begun to scratch the surface yet. We’re still reeling with issues that attach “ the rights of invention and authorship…to activities in the physical world.”

Anyway, I found the essay, and especially the pages on the Taxonomy of Information, very thought provoking where John examines “information” as an activity, a life form and a relationship. Here are few insights that I found interesting.
(Note: Emphasis is all mine)

Information as an activity:

“Information is an action which occupies time rather than a state of being which occupies a physical space, as in the case with hard goods. It is the pitch, not the ball, the dance, not the dancer.”

“Sharks are said to die of suffocation if they stop swimming, and the same is nearly true of information. Information that isn’t moving ceases to exist as anything but potential … at least until it is allowed to move again.”

“The central economic distinction between information and physical property is that information can be transferred without leaving the possession of the original owner. If I sell you my horse, I can’t ride him after that. If I sell you what I know, we both know it.”

Information is a life form:

“…the idea of “memes,” self-replicating patterns of information that propagate themselves across the ecologies of mind, a pattern of reproduction much like life forms.”

The more universally resonant an idea or image or song, the more minds it will enter and remain within. Trying to stop the spread of a really robust piece of information is about as easy as keeping killers bees south of the border.”

“Digital information, unconstrained by packaging, is a continuing process more like the metamorphosing tales of prehistory than anything that will fit in shrink-wrap. From the Neolithic to Gutenberg (monks aside), information was passed on, mouth to ear, changing with every retelling (or resinging). The stories which once shaped our sense of the world didn't have authoritative versions. They adapted to each culture in which they found themselves being told.

Information as a relationship:

“In most cases, we assign value to information based on its meaningfulness. The place where information dwells, the holy moment where transmission becomes reception, is a region which has many shifting characteristics and flavors depending on the relationship of sender and receiver, the depth of their interactivity.”

“In regard to my own soft product, rock 'n' roll songs, there is no question that the band I write them for, the Grateful Dead, has increased its popularity enormously by giving them away... True, I don't get any royalties on the millions of copies of my songs which have been extracted from concerts, but I see no reason to complain. The fact is, no one but the Grateful Dead can perform a Grateful Dead song, so if you want the experience and not its thin projection, you have to buy a ticket from us. In other words, our intellectual property protection derives from our being the only real-time source of it.

“In the physical world, value depends heavily on possession or proximity in space….In the virtual world, proximity in time is a value determinant. An informational product is generally more valuable the closer purchaser can place themselves to the moment of its expression, a limitation in time.”

Ok, that’s the end of my quoting. I put many of them here in this post just so I can reference them more easily in the future. If you found this post too lengthy or disjointed, I totally understand. But if you found some of the insights interesting, then I would totally recommend a full digestion of the eight page essay. It’s definitely a good read and can be found here.

The Economy of Ideas (originally published in Wired Mar 94)

BONUS: Reflecting on Internet Decade with John Perry Barlow (YouTube interview, 16 min)

1 comment:

kreierso said...

Thank you for sharing this! I would never have read this essay and it is so timely for me as I talk about the importance of teachers staying up to date using RSS. The quotes you selected were perfect!