History

"Information Wants to be Free": The history of that quote

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 5.28.16 PMLast year Steve Levy wrote “The Definitive Story of Information Wants to be Free.” It is an interesting reflection on that phrase and its origins. The exact quote arose in a conversation between Stewart Brand and Steve Wosniak at the first hackers conference in 1984 and was recorded by Levy as this:

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.

I relied on that same quote in my book Information Wants to be Shared. I wish I had had Wozniak’s retort at the time: “information should be free but your time should not” when I wrote that book because, well, that notion that attention was scarce and how this interacted with the economic properties of information was my point.

So it was with particular glee that I discovered the other day that the conversation was actually captured on video and it is available from Getty Images. I don’t want to own that video or repost it but fortunately, Getty Images allows you to play it. But as it turns out, Levy did not transcribe it accurately. Instead, Brand said this:

On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other. [Emphasis added]

Note the qualifier Brand uses “almost.” Now this changes nothing except that whomever was the first to say that exact phrase “information wants to be free” wasn’t Levy (as he explained) and, as it turns out, wasn’t Brand. But I thought it would be useful to at least set the record straight.

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