Malcolm Gladwell seems to confuse cause and effect, to his argument’s undoing. He ignores the subtlety in the phrase “information wants to be free” that he quotes. For completion’s sake let’s take a look at the entire, original quote as it was said by the founder of the WELL, one of the first online communities, over two decades ago:
“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.”
Many aspects of “information” are already free: conceptually it’s no more controllable de jure than trying to prevent gossip or outlaw singing. Humans already share information freely, when they talk to each other in close proximity. As technology makes other types of information sharing just as easy as talking in close proximity, and just as much a non-zero-sum, it is human nature to share it endlessly.
To Gladwell, it appears that there is a choice. Do we give some information away for free, or do we put some price on it, and pay for our information power plants. This is clearly the wrong way around: some people are still willing to part with money for information because they have not found it easy enough to get it for free. They are not really interested in paying for the distribution of information; they may be interested in paying for its existence in the first place, however.
But who pays for it, and is it specified as a direct, per-item price, or something entirely different? Gladwell is fixated on seeing “free” as a $0.00 price. But when the government funds basic research at universities it is paying for the creation of information, which will be distributed effectively free. When a Hulu user pays with their time and attention during a commercial break, they get their content for free. There is always a tradeoff, but there does not need to be a direct renumeration every single individual distributed unit in order to satisfy basic economics.
Gladwell fails to accept that the rules may just change, and that consumers may not be the ones directly paying for what they consume. Or that the consumers may not pay the content distributor and content creators according to the mantra that the information is the most important part. I would argue that sometimes the consumer makes a determination that the mode of data delivery is worth some money: witness the Kindle. In other cases, they are willing to trade time to get information for free, as happens with movies downloaded over BitTorrent. Consumers have already decoupled their view of the information flow into separate steps of creation and delivery, and they deal with them separately.
In the perfect world, information would be available to anyone who wants it, and the creators of such information would get enough of a financial incentive to create and continue creating, proportional to the aggregate value of their informational assets. Unlike physical goods, a creator does not lose or gain any physical, scarce resources from a copy of the information, nor is there usually any opportunity cost.
Creators need to accept that as communication channels open up, and as inter-human connections become faster, easier to establish, and cheaper, these connected humans will not want to be slowed down by an argument that they should pay for something just because of artificially-induced scarcity. Setting a speed limit in outer space is imbecilic. Instead, creators need to find a way to get compensated through means not connected directly to distribution. For newspapers and drug companies, this may be grants or governments. For television and music creators, this may be flat usage taxes or revenue sharing. But distribution of information — it will always flow by the path of least resistance, from one person to another, whether we want it or not, always towards the free if possible.
Gladwell’s argument had rested on maintaining control, and having a choice of giving something away for free — or giving it away for some other price. Really, the only choice left to a content creator in the long term is to give it away or not give it away at all. Once released, their output will end up as free, to some people at the very least. And unless there is really an alternative with no more movies, and no more books, and no more paintings, the creators will just have to deal.