Sunday, 10 April 2016

Information wants to be free...?

I both like and dislike the quote "information wants to be free", mainly because it opens up a very nice philosophical discussion on what 'free' means but also because - and this is part I hate - it is some damned meaningless without any grounding in any form of semantics; and we've seen this before!

For the first part, this statement treats information in an anthropomorphic manner. Is it really information itself that has the need to be free? Let's assume that it does, though in a very fairy tale like way, it seems to me.

So let's then look at the word 'free', which I assume does not mean 'free' as in 'without cost' in the sense that someone has to pay for it. Though this is a curious idea in that information is somehow prostituting itself and despite all attempts someone (the information's pimp perhaps?) insists on controlling things. I guess this is the idea that information is going through some pre-1960's sexual revolution...
Rather I think the word 'free' refers to 'freedom' albeit in a Western sense of the word. Think of the use of the concept freedom as used in the US Declaration of Independence.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all information is created equal, that it is endowed by its Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"
...or should that be Existence, Communication and Semantics perhaps....?

Let's stick with the word 'freedom' and its naive or common-sense meaning. What does it mean to be free? We can turn further to the the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights for further clarification, though here I'm sure we go into more of a legal-political debate more than anything. Evidently freedom means either the right to do or be something or the right to be protected from something.

So the question is, if information want to be free:

  • What does information want the freedom to do/be?
  • What does information want the freedom from?

Under the first question, the freedom to be 'free' as in 'without cost' certainly falls. What about the freedom to be private, or the freedom not to be abused - as in excessive privacy violations? Do we further need a notion of agency - does information have an owner or provenance?

Without answering those - I don't think I can give a definitive answer anyway - here's another thought. Given that matter = energy, isn't the use of the term information quite literally another way of saying 'humans' (or 'men' as in the Declaration of Independence). In which case the question 'information wants to be free' is just an expression of man's desire to define what freedom is - ostensibly in terms of freedom to do/be and freedom from.

And here comes the practical part, which freedoms to do/be or from do we allow or deny in order to be "free"?


Privacy Maverick said...

I have to disagree with you here Ian. First off, while typical usage of want is based on human desire, the definition is by no means constrained to that. Want also means "to have an inclination to" or "to have need of" (i.e. "that ball on the hill wants to roll down"). See transitive verb definition 2 & 3

Secondly, free in this context means "not obstructed, restricted, or impeded." See definition 7.a.

So a restatement would be "Information has an inclination not to be restricted" In other words, placing artificial barriers around information is analogous to holding a ball up on a hill. It is inclined to escape and come tumbling down the hill.

Jessica Parland-von Essen said...

I think it get's at least as interesting, when we're talking about the freedom of science (as our constitution does here in Finland). Whose freedom or the freedom of what is that ... ? This sometimes becomes a bit tricky when promoting open science. :)