Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Information as property devalues information

Susan Crawford has been reminding us that bits are not the same as atoms and that thinking about information as property devalues information.

"We can talk about "property" in a very reductive way. We can model it economically and make up mappings for it (literally). Property (atoms) can be reduced and understood as a series of computable relationships. I own that piece of land; you own the next lot over; we may have certain disputes or agreements, but the whole relationship can be understood as an algorithm or equation. We can be "scientific" about this relationship, in reductive terms.

Now, because information isn't conserved, because it can amplify and combine in unexpected ways and produce things that are greater than the sum of its parts, applying "property" analogies to it turns out to be extremely difficult. We can't (reliably) apply reductive understandings to it. We really aren't very good at understanding why information (like genetic coding, or money issues, or technological interoperability) does what it does when it does.

The new kinds of human activities that may be made possible by truly high-speed internet access are "informational" in nature. They'll be surprising and amplifying, and they'll evolve unpredictably.

But the network owners are trying to define everything in terms of property (a very atomic concept), as in "these are our pipes, we should control them." This just doesn't fit the situation.

The great risk of acceding to the property way of thinking is that we'll lose the informational opportunities (call it innovation, but it's more than that) that would otherwise be possible. And we won't even know what we're missing. "

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