One of the issues I write about frequently is “information sharing in philanthropy.” My basic argument is that because the social sector is trying to create value that accrues to the public, individuals actors in the sector can enhance their total impact by sharing what they know with other actors.
However, my argument also has echoes of the popular concept among Internet devotees that “Information Wants to be Free.” This concept advances a value judgment that information (especially stuff online) should be free.
I think this concept is nonsense.
The phrase “information wants to be free” comes from a speech given by Stewart Brand (editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, and founder of The Well, Global Business Network and the Long Now Foundation) in 1984. But Brand didn’t simply say that information should be free. What he actually said was:
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.
Brand commented on his speech in a 1987 paper that this tension…
…leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.
Brands comments reveal a deep complexity that the simplistic insistence that “information wants to be free” ignores. I bring all this up, because I want to be sure that when I advance the idea that philanthropy should embrace rampant information sharing, it is clear that my argument is not based on what I believe is the simplistic moral arguments that information in general wants to be free.
Instead, I’m so excited about advancing information sharing in philanthropy because the tension that Brand points to is mostly a function of for-profit markets and largely absent from social good markets. The reason we have “endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution” is because most information generally becomes less valuable to its creator as it spreads.
Coca-Cola is highly secretive of the formula for Coke. If they decided to share the formula, two things would happen 1) Other people would copy Coke, flooding the market with product as good as Coca-Cola’s, drive the price down and make Coke much more widely available and 2) Coca-Cola would find that their business was suddenly far less profitable since they no longer controlled the valuable information that underpins their business.
But the social sector doesn’t face this dilemma. Let’s imagine that a nonprofit existed that ran a program which successfully raised life outcomes of inner city youth. If they decided to share their “formula” two things would happen 1) Other people would copy them, flooding the nation with programs as good as theirs, drive the cost down and make the program much more widely available and 2) Social value creation would skyrocket, the developers of the program would be national heroes and probably win the Nobel Peace Prize (as Muhammad Yunus did in 2006 for advancing the field of microfinance).
Social media and the rise of almost costless information transmission is tearing apart for-profit fields like journalism and the music industry. But philanthropy doesn’t face the tension that Brand describes.
Yet philanthropy is failing to capitalize on the biggest transformational dynamic to hit our field. Brand writes that “each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.” But in philanthropy each round of new devices makes the opportunity better and our failure to capitalize on the shift more dramatic.