InTheFuture we'll see the world increasingly divided into two classes : the information-rich haves, and the information-poor have-nots.

But ironically the exploited, impoverished, have-nots, will be those who are duped into paying increasingly more for decreasingly valuable proprietory information products.

Meanwhile the cash rich, information rich will increasingly rely on superior and practically free information products and services like online search engines, pirated and copylefted software, public service programming from the BBC (ie, h2g2), the online communities of enthusiasts in every field, united through blogging, mailing lists, forums and wikis.

These inexpensive resources will continue to improve as the communities grow and the EditorializingIsParallelizable effect takes hold; while the proprietory organizations will be forced to pollute their products and services with advertising, editorial compromises, standards violations (to differentiate them from their competitors), inadequate consumer scrutiny (trade secrets), & etc.

But why shouldn't the poor simply start to take advantage of the free information? The catch is that there are switching costs :

Typically free information will require its consumers to

  • make critical judgements, deciding what to believe and who to trust
  • learn new things such as how their computer works and the etiquette of a new community
  • delay gratification
  • shed prejudices : Open mindedness, an ability to accept and benefit from criticism and change (!), and an ability and willingness to engage with alien cultures are critical skills. You must be curious about the potential of unknown resources and communities, optimistic that they have something to teach you, patient with the fact that these strangers will disagree with your cherished beliefs.
  • be serious : one thing which free hasn't provided so convincingly yet : entertainment. Most of the free ways to spend your time are currently more serious / educational / "worthy". Clearly people, with this sort of taste, will have a cultural and EDUCATIONAL advantage which allows us to exploit the free world.


No one has the time and energy to engage all the amateur communities to this depth. For some things we´re going to need to be naive consumers of packaged, superficial rubbish. Compare geeks who engage deeply with software projects but live off junk-food. They haven't the spare capacity to engage with cooking and SlowFood.

For this reason, while we can celebrate TheAgeOfAmateurs, maybe we can't dispense with TheCultOfTheProduct or the commercial systems that make products possible.

Free Entertainment?

The interesting first test case of this point is music. People want a wide selection of FreeAsInBeer, convenient music; as demonstrated by P2P file sharing networks (Napster etc.) - but the majority of this music was not written to be explicitly part of the free information community. Piracy over P2P is far more popular than getting genuinely FreeAsInSpeech music from amateurs at

Right now we don't have information on the crucial question : if there was no P2P networks making commercial music free - would people stick to payed commercial music, or spend more effort exploring (and promoting) free music made by amateurs on If the second, we would have the first case of genuinely free entertainment (See FreeMusic)

Gregor J. Rothfuss comments : why is there no free entertainment when there is an abundance of free knowledge? i think knowledge accrues, while entertainment does not. entertainment atoms do not build upon each other in the same way that knowledge atoms do. maybe this is the return of a protestant work ethic?

SJ asks /WhatIsFreeMusic?

grockwel asks "What is television?" It is free to the user though we pay by watching ads. A book that deals with this is JaneJacob's dialogue "Systems of Survival". She suggests there are two cultures; the guardians who are paid in fame - they give information away, and the merchants who are paid in cash - they charge for information. Much of the web is the

conflict of these cultures.

: I think ad-supported TeleVision is basically an attention harvesting and reselling business. It isn't free in the sense I'm using here or on TheAgeOfAmateurs. The JaneJacobs idea is interesting. I didn't know that. But it's definitely true that the web-culture is formed by and highlights the conflict of these two. (More on TheAttentionEconomy / NetoCracy)


More comments

Dumb question: Why is this tragedy hilarious ?? – OliSharpe

: erm ... well, ironic would be better, maybe? I guess because I'm contrasting this situation with the usual worry ... that the information poor are locked out due to not being able to pay. Of course, the truth is that the poor will be locked out by not having the time to engage with amateur communities. So it's not really funny at all.

Exploit the free world? –MicroCog

: What do you suggesting exactly MicroCog? :-) Are you suggesting that the free world is inherantly open to be exploited by the unfree? And this is a flaw? Or are you cynically rallying the unfree world to join in the exploitation?

: I think my point on this page is that the unfree world actually can't exploit the free world without becoming part of it. Because exploiting it properly really means entering into dialogue with it. Sure, you can download FreeSoftware and use it. But to really get the most out of it, you need to help contribute to and steer it's development ... to report bugs, suggest fixes etc. Otherwise you have a piece of software which is responsive to other contributors and not you. (Contrast payed software where you send a signal to the authors by chosing to pay or not.)

: Another example, I see from your IP that you're at MicroSoft. I'd say MS have had to join the world of free information disemination. They put a lot of documentation up on the web. There are weblogs from inside MS with all sorts of useful information. I'm sure MS would like to hide everything behind a wall, exclusively for paid members of MSDN. But they can't because that would defeat the object of communicating. To gain attention (compare TheAttentionEconomy) and support the EcoSystem of the MS platforms. So, to really engage with the free-world, MS have to put real stuff into it. And really allow their employees to engage with free communities. I'm not sure this genie goes back in the bottle. Or that the community can be exploited in the sense of one-way taking that a cynic might imagine / hope.

: – PhilJones

DaveWiner on how commercial advertising destroys conferences :

BBC to make programme archive free downloads :

Interesting case. Have you noticed in the spam you get how many ads there seem to be for "cheap software"? Who the hell buys cheap software? The only debate worth having is whether there's a reason to buy the MicroSoft or whichever is the best proprietory vended software (and essentially pay for preceived values like brand, support, InterOperability with the mainstream etc) or whether you should just use FreeSoftware.

This is a DigitalDivide issue. How excluded and disempowered do you have to be to believe that cheap software is a bargain? (Unless we're just talking buying pirate CDs in the Paraguay market of course. ;-)

More in TheAgeOfAmateurs, DigitalDivide, TheLogicOfTheFuture, FreeMusic, OpenSourceRequiresAnOpenAttitude