In an attempt to analyze the whole WikiLeaks phenomena, some have turned to an iconic phrase pronounced at the first Hacker’s Conference in 1984 by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand:
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. (see “Information Wants to be Free …” by Roger Clarke, February 24, 2000)
Though I don’t have a problem grabbing the general idea expressed in those sentences, I find the form of their expression to be problematic. For example, it could be argued that “information wants to be free” is a misguiding statement for at least two reasons.
On one hand, it seems to imply that “information” is an identifiable object, an entity with intrinsic qualities. Something I could point to and say: “Look! An information…” just like I can point to a car, a rock or a bird. Communication studies have struggled for a long time (are still struggling) to get rid of the naive but very comforting idea that “information” is something that travels through tubes from an emitter to a receptor. Although those metaphors may have helped earlier researchers at the very beginning of mass communication studies, they now tend to be considered obsolete, at least as a scientific model. The main problem is that while thinking about “information” as a finished product, one will be less likely to think about it as a dynamic process.
On the other hand, the statement suggests that information is a subject: it has an agenda and is capable of free will. If information is a “thing”, I can’t see how one could reasonably come to think that it is capable of wanting anything. If information was considered as a process, it will be another matter.
In any case, Stewart Brand phrase should be used with caution. Here are two complimentary perspectives on the subject, two different ways of understanding both the concept of information and the WikiLeaks affair:
- 1) In a lecture delivered on January 9th, 1970, Gregory Bateson famously said:
In fact, what we mean by information―the elementary unit of information― is a difference which makes a diference (…) (“Form, Substance and Difference”, reprinted in Steps To An Ecology of Mind, Northvale, New Jersey, London: Jason Aronson Inc., 1972, p. 459)
In the woods, there are many differences between the trees, between the leaves on those trees. But if, while walking, those differences don’t make a difference to me, then to me they do not act as information. The same thing goes for the diffusion of WikiLeaks’ cables. Most of use won’t read them. We’ll have heard about the WikiLeaks affair through various media, but we won’t have taken the time to examine the cables by ourselves. If the cables don’t make a difference for us, we can’t say that they act as information, at least not as direct information. In other words, in order for information to be “free” it should become (and be thought of as) a dynamic process powered by concerned users.
- 2) Since Stewart Brand comment is about the way information spreads it wouldn’t be a bad idea to back it up with an adequate and detailed model. As it happens, such a model exists and has been in used in different fields of social sciences for the last fifty years: it’s the “diffusion of innovation” model developed and improved by Everett M. Rogers. Basically, it offers a way to explain rigorously and in details
the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. (Diffusion of Innovations, Third edition, New York: Free Press, p. 5; preview available on Google Books)
“Innovations” should not be strictly understood as new “gadgets” (iPad, electric car, etc.). An innovation is essentially something new, the novelty of which isn’t intrinsic to an object, but rather attributed from the perspective of a subject. The study of the diffusion of news is one of the earliest tradition of diffusion research in the field of communication studies. See for example “Diffusion of News of the Kennedy Assassination” by Bradley S. Greenberg (Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 28, no 2, pp. 225-232, Summer 1964; full text available via subscription or proxy).
Finally, here are some more resources to dive into the WikiLeaks affair:
- Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, offers two serious tools for those of us who would be interested in learning more about WikiLeaks: 1) his Beginner’s Guide to WikiLeaks along with a list of background reading; 2) “How to Think About WikiLeaks” is a collection of relevant articles published online and pertaining to WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and what it means for journalism.
- A profile of Julian Assange by Raffi Khatchadourian published this past summer in The New Yorker (June 7, 2010): “No secrets. Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency”.
- “The Black Shack” is an essay on WikiLeaks by science-fiction author Bruce Sterling (December 22, 2010).
- Philosopher Slavoj Žižek published his thought on the subject in the last edition of the London Review of Books: “Good Manners in the Age of WikiLeaks”