[excerpt from his 2012 book You Are Not a Gadget]
“Information wants to be free.” So goes the saying. Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, seems to have said it first.
I say that information doesn’t deserve to be free.
Cybernetic totalists love to think of the stuff as if it were alive and had its own ideas and ambitions. But what if information is inanimate? What if it’s even less than inanimate, a mere artifact of human thought? What if only humans are real, and information is not?
Of course, there is a technical use of the term ‘information’ that refers to something entirely real. This is the kind of information that’s related to entropy. But that fundamental kind of information, which exists independently of the culture of an observer, is not the same as the kind we put in computers, the kind that supposedly wants to be free.
Information is alienated experience.
You can think of culturally decodable information as a potential form of experience, very much as you think of a brick resting on a ledge as storing potential energy. When the brick is prodded to fall, the energy is revealed. That is only possible because it was lifted into place at some point in the past.
In the same way, stored information might cause experience to be revealed if it is prodded in the right way. A file on a hard disk does contain information of the kind that objectively exists. The fact that the bits are discernible instead of being scrambled into mush— the way heat scrambles things— is what makes them bits.
But if the bits can potentially mean something to someone, they can only do so if they are experienced. When that happens, a commonality of culture is enacted between the storer and the retriever of the bits. Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information.
Information of the kind that purportedly wants to be free is nothing but a shadow of our own minds, and wants nothing on its own. It will not suffer if it doesn’t get what it wants.
But if you want to make the transition from the old religion, where you hope God will give you an afterlife, to the new religion, where you hope to become immortal by getting uploaded into a computer, then you have to believe information is real and alive. So for you, it will be important to redesign human institutions like art, the economy, and the law to reinforce the perception that information is alive. You demand that the rest of us live in your new conception of a state religion. You need us to deify information to reinforce your faith.