If you’ve never seen the Twilight Zone, I’m about to spoil a 50 year old episode of it for you. The name of the episode is called “To Serve Man” and you can watch it here.
Ready for the spoiler? At the end we discover that the book the supposedly friendly aliens have given us is not a peace proposal called “To Serve Man”, but actually a cookbook by the same name. Words, it turns out, often do not mean what it is that they appear to mean at first glance.
I first heard the phrase “Information wants to be free!” on the Well back in the late 80s. Yes, we’ve been arguing about it for that long. And for almost as long it was considered to be “hippie crap”, or a dream that charging for information will ultimately fail, sooner or later every episode of your favorite TV show will be available to watch for free on Vimeo.
During the early 2000’s, as we fought over the realities of copyright, it became a common point of argument. I heard it called “stupid” and “childish”, but the truth is that those who want to discredit it never really understood the meaning of it. The phrase was never meant to be a rallying cry, it is an axiom. It describes a behavior of data. Information wants to be free wasn’t intended as a declaration of war against profit, it was a simple, obvious fact.
Remember the phrase, “An object in motion tends to stay in motion”? That’s one of Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion. It’s something you can rely on to be true. That’s the point of an axiom. And data, it turns out, really wants to be free.
On a case by case basis, it’s easy to argue that every leak, spill, or misuse of data is a special one. If you could just stop a particular “crazy” person, or “selfish” pirate, or catch that coding flaw, it would never ever happen again. But data doesn’t escape by accident, it’s an inevitable outcome when you start piling information together.
That’s because data is a transformation of knowledge. Like quantum mechanics, bringing numbers together in a meaningful way, whether on a spreadsheet, as a movie file, or hidden in servers somewhere deep under the mountains of Utah, changes them. Once you’ve stuck it all together in a meaningful way it becomes something valuable. Our economy is based on scarcity, and if we can keep the access limited, we can charge for it.
But data aches to be used. Simply bottling it up isn’t worth the effort. That’s because using the data is the point of having it in the first place. If humans don’t use it, it has no value.
And any use is, in and of itself, a leak. You can put baffles and sponges everywhere in the hope that it leaks only one way. That’s how you can simulate scarcity. Most of the time that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. The more meaningful the data the more it’s used. The more use it gets the higher the likelihood that it won’t stay bottled up. Hakuna Matata.
Once it’s out, the cost of replication is small. The fact that we want to know, and we point our technology at it, means that it’s going to spread. The human mega-brain is here, it’s just as disorganized, dysfunctional, and confused as any of the individuals contained within it.
Sadly for our institutions there’s no amount of show trials, or governments smashing disk drives (Rawr! England destroy!) that will change the fundamental desire of data to escape and replicate.
The danger comes from the fact that as individuals we are powerless against the intensity that governments can bring to bear against us using that data, and the avenues they have to spread it far and wide. Snowden, Assange, and Manning are all proof that any attempt to demand transparency or accountability by those attempting to manage data will bring the wrath of the world against you. None of us are perfect, and heroes are always flawed.
It’s ironic to watch people accusing individual leakers of having character flaws, and thinking that somehow justifies calling their attempts to create transparency “evil”.
The profiles used to demean the leakers are themselves often based on particular information that has been leaked by governments (and then defined by the media). As individuals our lives are fluid things. What defines us as “good”, “bad”, or even “misunderstood” changes from day to day. But once you start writing a narrative, whether it’s fiction, or biography, you begin to understand that the way your characters are perceived is about the details that we choose to reveal and keep secret. The “truth” is most often made up out of the particular way we describe the pattern of that life. It’s the way the cookie crumbles, the chips fall, or the cards are dealt, that defines our perception of those events.
This may be news to you, but none of us are perfect. Any of us can, with only a little work, quickly construct a narrative out of our own lives that would make us unworthy of the position we currently hold in society. The idea that we are fundamentally imperfect isn’t a new one: one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is that we are all in need of forgiveness, because God knows all. He is the ultimate database.
In a world where more information is being collected all the time, and where that information naturally pushes to escape its boundaries, who is our savior? And what can we do to protect ourselves?
Despite the tendency towards thinking that it will be an apocalypse, my guess is that our society will continue to adapt. A world where data collection and leaking is constant and ongoing is going to be a strange, dangerous, and interesting place. In fact it already is.