The price of information

On: April 6, 2013
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About Sebastiaan Andeweg


Thanks to the internet there is a lot of information available, for not much more than the cost of an internet connection. With the access to all that information, we might start to think that all that information is free. In a way it is, of course: it doesn’t cost us money to view the information. But does that make the information free?

When you take economics to the basic, it’s all about doing things together. We have earth and nature, and to survive we have to get certain things out of it: food, shelter, that kind of stuff. During the centuries that we’re on this planet, more needs have been created. If we want information, someone has to gather that information, meaning he cannot search for food, so we have to search for food for him. Time is money, they tend to say, but if you see it this way, money is time is a better phrase.

This is the principle behind the scientists and the journalists: we pay them to gather information for us. The scientist is more on the creating side of information: he looks for new knowledge, adding it to the pile of existing information about a certain topic. A journalist gets also paid for his information, but he’s more on the collection side of information: he brings information together into one, broader understandable piece of writing. (And yeah, scientists do report in writing, journalists do their research.)

The information created and gathered by scientists and journalists isn’t free, because they have to eat: someone should pay their bill. A cheaper model of information gathering is Wikipedia. In here, everybody can write, research and gather information. One can argue that Wikipedia is not free, because they have their servers to pay (that’s why they have their donation request every year or so). But besides from that, the real gathering of information isn’t free here also. The ones that are writing, still need food. It’s just that they pay themselves: they’re writing for Wikipedia in their spare time, they have to do another job for living. That’s free for the reader, but not free in general.

At last, there is what some call The Internet of Things. By this, they mean that computers have to gather information themselves, and by linking them to the internet, we can get an interesting network of knowledge. No one has to eat in this case, but the computers don’t collect their information for nothing: they eat electricity. Also, someone has to create those computers, and this human has to eat as well. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Thus, real free information does not exist. There’s always someone who has to pay for the creation of information. In some cases, like Wikipedia, the information creator pays itself, which is as close to free you can get. The drawback of this situation is that Wikipedia writers are not specially trained to write. The scientist and the journalist get paid for their jobs because they’re good at it and they get even better and better, for they have all day to do the job. A Wikipedia writer has less time to become a professional (although sometimes already professional writers write for Wikipedia as well).

When we have to pay, the options are countless. Paywall, subscription, advertisement, funding by research groups itself, donations or some hybrid form: it’s all possible and for every situation there can be found a right way to reserve time for those who have to write. But someone has to pay, real free information does not exist.

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