Initially this writing was going to talk about surviving as a programmer in the age of Open Source. However, as I thought more about it, what I’m really trying to cover is the entire, broad spectrum of issues that have and will continue to arise as long as information becomes more and more free to reproduce, modify, and share. This writing will discuss the implications of the new movements, and suggest how to survive among them.
The Nature of Information
Before the Open Source movement and the development of the Internet, information was not easily reproducible; businesses could thrive on the control of the reproduction and spread of this information. This resulted in the creation of companies such as publishers, television broadcasters, and newspapers, each of which could survive by restricting the flow of information by demanding payment for it, and establishing copyrights. This resulted in concepts such as owning copies of information, since further copying of this information would be costly and could be perceived as a clear, distinct action. Information processing happened in discrete steps. Because of these qualities of information, information could be restricted in a natural manner; that is, techniques which applied to restricting the flow of objects in the physical world could also be applied to restricting information spread.
Now, not only has the cost of information reproduction been virtually erased, the act is also a much less of a distinguishable event than before. Now, everytime a webpage is viewed, the information is reproduced and transformed many times through various pieces of hardware and software, before it reaches the recipient. Information can be posted to public forums such as newsgroups so that the information can be replicated infinitely, without any consent of the original author. Hence, an important impact of this quality there is no one entity that can oversee all of this reproduction, for any single person can act as a repeater of information.
A consequence of this ever-permeating repeating and sharing of information is that individual copies of information no longer are a distinct entities; they continually undergo transferring and mutating. As a result, techniques applied in the physical world to restrict objects no longer can be used to restrict the flow of information.
Obsoleted Profit Making Models
Given that we now have a new era where unrestricted information permeation can be considered the norm, I propose that we should eventually do away with those industries which survive on a controlled spread of information In particular, I will address simple selling or reselling selling if information, and advertising within information systems.
I will use the general argument that if an industry requires extremely artificial or unnatural methods or laws to ensure its survival, compared to the natural course of information technology, than this industry’s means of survival is obsolete. My reasoning for this is that from a practical point of view, it requires a large amount of energy and resources to implement artificial restrictions, and that the cost of such measures would far outweigh the potential profit of being able to enforce them.
Simple Selling or Reselling of Information
If any group or individual can distribute the same or better information than or more freely than a commercial business, eventually there will be a group or individual who, for whatever reason, will be determined enough to perform this task in a manner superior than the business, creating a more enticing source for the consumer to get his or her information product from. An example of this are industries which rely on information-sharing-restrictive copyrights, such as most software companies and publishers of music and books Enforcing such copyrights is an expensive task, and as a general rule, it has become more and more expensive to enforce them as time goes on, due to new open and free sharing technologies, such as Gnutella.
One interesting aspect of information is that it is divisible, down to the size of a bit. As a consequence of this, if undesired advertising is appended to desired information, the advertising can be easily spliced off. For example, advertisements in websites are merely appended information; a filter could be created for these websites which strips out the advertisements, and simply leaves the content.
Another means of advertising is embedded advertising, such as advertising logos within images. Since information is unrestricted in its mutability, these embedded information bits can be eliminated or negated as shown in a story Slashdot story, where NBC’s logo during the 2000 New Year’s Celebration was overridden with CBS’s logo.
Hence, I will conclude advertising is also obsolete, since both the appending or embedding of information with other information can be negated or eliminated due to flexibility of information.
New and Expanded Sources of Income
This spread of information introduces new needs in society, which now become new sources of business. These businesses do not depend on the restriction of information flow to survive.
Identification or Trust-conferring agencies
Anyone who has searched for mp3’s has most likely come across some which are corrupted or incomplete. Imperfect information is easy to come by in today’s age, and so I propose that some agencies will be able to survive by being a trusted, reliable source of information. An example of this could be Verisign, which has as part of its business model confirming the identity of certain pieces of information, such as code or public keys. Note that in this system one does not pay to receive the results of this confirmation, but rather to have this confirmation process occur; that is, if I were to want pieces of code of mine signed by Verisign, I would pay Verisign to do so, and then anyone could receive this knowledge without restriction.
Information on Demand
So far, trends have not shown there there are any good solve-all-problems pieces of information. Hence, it is likely true that there will continue to be a market for those who can solve unexpected information needs on demand. This can include creation documentation, graphics, or software. For example, as a student, I have a part-time job helping administer machines and solve systems problems at my workplace; this involves my programming custom systems for my employer to use, as my employer’s needs continually shift, and so buying pre-packaged solution has not been a long-term viable option. There is no reason this sort service could not happen at the business level; it’s simply outsourcing needs.
Support and Training
Using powerful software can be a complex task; there will likely always be a need for companies such as RedHat to provide support and training for businesses who need to keep their employees abreast of handling the newest Linux technologies. This can be very similar to providing information on demand, as training often is custom-tailored to the trainees’ particular situation.
Given the ease which one can transfer money around through the Internet for little or no cost, it is very possible that some organizations will be able to survive through not large contributions by a small number of donors, but rather through small contributions made by a large number of donors. For example, it is foreseeable that organizations such as KDE might setup a financial account through a third-party where I could easily transfer to them a small donation of a couple of dollars with very minimal effort. Through these means, some artists will likely be able to survive the rampaging free spread of their music.
While this system relies partly on human charity, there is also the important aspect that consumers who are truly grateful for what they have received from a information-creator realize that without support, the creator will not likely create additional information. A good example of this would be the Free Software Foundation which has received many donations to keep it and its projects alive.
In General, the new Survival Model
In general, with regards to information, the new survival model involves surviving on either actually being paid to produce information rather than selling it, which is essentially restricting its flow by requiring payments. I do not pretend, however, the new information-spread economic model will necessarily be like the one I’ve described; no-one can truly predict the future. Given recent history, though, trends appear to be moving toward one where unrestricted freedom of information will become the norm.