Stewart Brand’s famous maxim, "Information Wants to be Free,” has been, for more than 25 years, one of the most popular rallying cries of the Digital Age. These words have been famously twisted, adapted and re-interpreted to mean, “Everything on the Internet should be free.” Little remembered, though, is Brand’s all-important follow-on sentence, “Information also wants to be expensive.” In a new era of Big Data and incredibly sophisticated computing algorithms, is it possible that we are finally about to witness a fundamental shift in the way we value information?
Information, in short, wants to be expensive.
Reading through James Gleick’s wonderful new book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, it’s possible to create a narrative of the digital era as being an ongoing tension between “meaning” and “bits.” "Meaning" implies that the Internet is helping us make sense of the world around us. "Bits" implies that the Internet has led us to create an infinitely large Library of Babel, where information is plentiful but where the right information is impossible to find. We have just witnessed an astonishing period in which humanity’s greatest, most meaningful, accomplishments have been converted into bits. On the Web, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, converted into a series of 1s and 0s, co-exists peacefully with descriptions of LOL cats and cheezburgers, dutifully converted into an analogous series of 1s and 0s.
Bits, unfortunately, are a commodity. The value of information as supply tends to infinity rapidly approaches zero. Even the most ill-informed economist would tell you that. Meaning, though, is something completely different. For now, this search for meaning has meant “curation” and “filtering” – anything to get us past a staggering amount of information overload. (As an aside, Gleick’s book alone is worth reading for its priceless descriptions of what information overload felt like hundreds of years ago. Alexander Pope, for example, famously bemoaned the days when “Paper becomes so cheap, and printers so numerous, that a deluge of Authors covered the land.”)
Something amazing happens when the set of information becomes large enough. For now, Big Data has been the phrase du jour to describe the type of information that can’t be described by traditional databases, but can somehow be parsed by computing algorithms. As McKinsey describes in its latest research report, Big Data in the right hands means untold new efficiencies in fields from manufacturing to retail to medicine – the ability to understand random patterns in a sea of complexity. (Or, at the very least, to be able to discern a really good trade amidst a sea of stock market noise) The most obvious application for this computing power is the medical field. Imagine what can be done when we apply computational power to the full complexity of the human genome.
We may be living through what Mashable refers to the Sharepocalypse – a new, heightened period of information overload when every aspect of our lives can be shared online in an amazing assortment of ways. TMI, recorded as zettabytes. The good news is that Big Data, in sufficiently large amounts, can transform itself into information, insights and ideas. When information is no longer perceived as a series of 1s and 0s, it may even have the power to unlock the hidden secret and beauty of the universe around us.