The year was 1987. Personal computers were less than a decade old. I had been working a couple of years earlier as a reporter for a newspaper that still used electric typewriters. The Web did not exist. E-mail was something still new and amazing. Personal hand-held mobile phones were still an expensive novelty. The videocassette recorder and the compact disc were the height of consumer technology.
Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and the organizer of the first “Hackers’ Conference,” wrote about Nicholas Negroponte and the M.I.T. Media Lab, where the future we live in now was just starting to be imagined. With chapter headings like “intelligent television” and “paperback movies,” this book was more influential on my career and thinking as a journalist than anything else I have ever read (though Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control” came close in 1994). Its predictions were off here and there, but it explained how all those bits were going to change everything sooner or later.
Here is a sentence I underlined: “Even copy machines and photography are going digital.” Obvious now, a revelation then. As was this: “E-mail evaporates the tyranny of place, and to a considerable degree, of time.” And I don’t know if Brand came up with the idea or borrowed it from someone at the lab, but there is this observation on page 202: “Information wants to be free.”
People who repeat that now often forget the corollary that followed in the book: “Information also wants to be expensive.” Eight long years later, the future foretold in this book started to come true for me. I spent the first three decades of my life waiting for the Web to be invented, and the second two playing and working in it. What’s next?
Here’s that full passage on information (the introduction to a discussion of movie piracy — on videocassette):
Information Wants to Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine — too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, “intellectual property,” and the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.