Does Information Want to Be Free?

Does Information Want to Be Free?
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

It's been a long time since I checked in on #opensource publishing software. I learned perl and then PHP by using tools like WordPress, Drupal, and others I'm sure I've forgotten about. Like going back to a place you saw as a child, the world looks very different. I remember a world driven largely by conversations. In the early days of the web, communications were mostly in one direction, and I was one of those content creators, working hard on Jung Index, Klub Kuumba, and Sheldrake Online. You can see my own manifesto from 1997 on Jung Index. Once languages like perl and PHP became more commonly used, there was an explosion of conversations facilitated through online discussions using tools like message boards. I remember Ultimate Bullitin Board, Gossamer Threads being at the top.

At the time, it was also possible to search and actually find everything in any category. Pre-Google, we used search engines like Lycos, WebCrawler, AltaVista, Excite, and Yahoo. Yahoo's search engines were beneficial because they helped curate the explosion of content into directories of information. Eventually, it was clear that web directories were not going to work, and by the time Google appeared, the web was already too big for anyone to curate. Google realized that search and ranking were the future.

One side effect that I knew but didn't appreciate is how extensively the web has been commercialized. Individual content creators work to become influencers either through their words (substack) or images (Instagram). Way back in 1996, I was doing the same. I somehow worked out an advertising agreement with Princeton University Press, and Princeton agreed to pay a monthly fee in exchange for me adding a banner ad to my website. The web of 2022 is an extrapolation of that approach. I can remember when the New York Times put up a paywall. It was controversial because there was a sense that "information wants to be free." That sentiment seems to have died.

When new tech transforms, it can also democratize. There was an explosion of creativity in those early days. The creators sought to monetize their creations but mostly as an afterthought. Web 2.0 started coming online soon after, heralded by new tech like asynchronous Javascript (Ajax) and new web standards like abstracting design from content. There were new methods for design like cascading style sheets (CSS) that would make the web a much more usable and beautiful place. Now, we're at the dawn of Web 3.0, and the sophistication and maturity of what has happened over the past 20 years are really amazing. Web 3.0 is about plugging into a vast ecosystem of connected services to create something great than the sum of the parts. Web 3.0 also seems to be about relinquishing control and giving over some parts of what you may do today to another service. In our daily lives, this is pretty normal. I can outsource my car maintenance, plumbing, lawn care, roofing, medical care, child care, and even dog walking. So, why might this be disruptive for tech?

Once upon a time, we did those tasks that are now being outsourced. It can feel a little diminishing to outsource tasks that I'm perfectly capable of doing. What will I do with that extra time? I imagine technology professionals, especially at large corporations, are asking themselves the same question.