Freeconomics for Freakonomists

Chris Anderson goes all soft and mushy over the fact that we now seem to be breaking the "penny per MIPS" barrier.  He is right to step back and shake his head in wonder: Moore’s Law is still going strong, thank you very much, and it is sometimes (OK, once per year would be about right) useful to step back and reflect a bit on what this means.

I started saying in various speeches back in 1995 or so that computing, communications and storage should be considered free. That doesn’t mean that you won’t continue to pay Intel or your telco or various harddisk producers a lot of money, but it does mean that if you want to do something strategic, lack of computing power is not going to hold you back. I think I was right then, and I think I am right now: It is not the technology that slows us down, it is our imagination. Or lack of it.

In a market with falling resource costs, it is sound practice to think of resources as free – it frees up your mind as well. One of the reasons Google is possible, for instance, is because they use cheap hardware and an open-source base, on which they build their infrastructure. If they need another 40000 servers, that does not mean they need to pay another 40000 licenses – a saving not just in license fees but also in the inevitable monitoring and accounting that goes with any kind of pay-as-you-go scheme.

Now if we could only free up the information of the world to the same degree. I wonder when the European countries will reach the same realization that the US seems to have reached a long time ago: That the value of making all public information freely available (in tax from companies profiting from it, for instance) vastly exceeds whatever license fees can be had from selling information already paid for by your tax money back to the people who provided it in the first place. I predict that public information will be public, partly because what Yochai Benkler calls "social production" can recreate it (the way UK internet users are recreating the proprietary postal code database), partly because in a connected society, having free access to public data becomes both an individual right and an effective check on government – and voters will start demanding it.

But it will take time and it will not proceed according to Moore’s law. But perhaps we can use Moore’s law to free the information – by using search engines to sniff out and systematize the information that should be ours in the first place?

That would be a hacking project in the Wikipedia spirit. Free the captured information!

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