by Thomas Wailgum

Information Wants to Be Free, But at What Cost?

Nov 20, 2009
Enterprise Applications

Businesses want information to flow cheaply, easily throughout organizations, but information management is absurdly expensive.

Everyone has heard the quote: “Information wants to be free.”

Ever since Stewart Brand uttered it in 1984 at the first Hackers’ Conference, this quote has been a rallying cry for those who staunchly believe in the power of unimpeded and free information flow.

For businesses, however, adoption of the slogan has proven to be a complex, perilous endeavor: To many, it connotes a total lack of control over information, data and intellectual property. (The most glaring example is the media industry’s ongoing struggles.)

As wiki guru Stewart Mader points out in a recent blog post, the quote, on its own, without the context of the rest of his statement, makes “those first five words sound naive and utopian.” Here’s Brand’s full quote:

Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It 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.

It’s still a fascinating and vexing line of thought, even some 25 years later. Just look at the precarious state of information and “knowledge” management, data analytics and “business intelligence” inside most companies today: No doubt businesses want information to flow freely (both cheaply and without digital encumbrances) throughout their entire organizations—so that business managers in their offices, sales guys visiting customers’ businesses, supply chain partners in China, and finance personnel at headquarters can unleash the value of the corporate data that’s been so easy to accumulate but so difficult to unlock.

As any CIO or business manager knows today, information management is absurdly expensive. And not without risk. And the more information—the data flows from ERP software, supply chain systems, customer relationship apps, social networking sites, mobile devices, and on and on—that companies continue to exponentially collect, the more difficult and expensive it’s going to be for companies to understand and disseminate that information.

My inner Debby Downer can’t help but mention that Gartner predicts that the amount of enterprise data will grow 650 percent during the next five years, and the vast majority of that data will be unstructured, meaning that it won’t be included in or specifically attached to any one database. (For more on this challenge, see The Future of ERP.)

This growth “is going to cost us dearly if we don’t pay attention,” David Cappuccio, chief of research for the Infrastructure teams at Gartner, recently said. And to manage all of this data, Cappuccio contends, will require companies to embrace new methodologies (such as data de-duplication and automated tiering of storage) and to make crucial decision based on risk management and future business strategies on the potential value of their data.

Paradoxically, then, the free flow of information throughout society and the world has made it even more expensive for businesses that want to make sense of it all. I don’t think there’s any one thing or person to blame. It’s just that an information tsunami was unleashed and no one’s really been able to deal with the data deluge.

Twenty-five years after this famous quote’s birth, people still want information to be free. In fact, they now expect it to be. But I think businesses are not any closer to where they want to be in terms of truly understanding the information they now possess.

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