The Medium is the Money, the Message is Free

Sometime back I came up with a controversial notion that information is free. To be clear, it wasn’t that it ought to be free but that it actually was free. What people pay for is the medium.

Today, Paul Graham has a new essay out that says the same thing:

Publishers of all types, from news to music, are unhappy that consumers won’t pay for content anymore. At least, that’s how they see it.

In fact consumers never really were paying for content, and publishers weren’t really selling it either. If the content was what they were selling, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format? Why didn’t better content cost more? [1]

A copy of Time costs $5 for 58 pages, or 8.6 cents a page. The Economist costs $7 for 86 pages, or 8.1 cents a page. Better journalism is actually slightly cheaper.

It’s a good, free read.

7 thoughts on “The Medium is the Money, the Message is Free”

  1. Librarians wouldn’t agree with you. Whether you subscribe to those CCH services in paper or electronically, you’re paying for content.

    I’m looking for subscriptions to cancel, as librarians so aften are these days, and I will reluctantly let The Europa Yearbook go – $2000 for excellent information, not for the paper.

    One of the problems of getting rid of traditional librarians is that libraries stop buying on the basis of quality of the information. Much cheaper to just provide a profile to a supplier – send us books on these subjects up to this price.


  2. Information isn’t free – it’s a commodity like any other, except that it is more easily replicated than anything else, so it experiences something close to perfect competition – far quicker than any other product – because everybody who is a recipient of that information can instantly become a producer. Paul Graham does mention that you have to pay for some information – e.g. timely information (stock prices) – it’s just that its value reduces to $0 after 15 minutes.


  3. Information is free. What about if you consider the cost of time? We may pay for information, but not with our cash, but with our time. Time I use to read something, might be time I forego to read something else (assuming there is a limit on how much time each day I can spend reading).
    I would also argue what we are paying for with our time is not the information, but the newness of the information – a new combination of existing information, a combination that we haven’t read before ie news.


  4. Information, delivery, free: one interpretation of what you are talking about is the multi-dimensional nature of value. We value (to a greater or lesser and individual extent) the content, the delivery, the time, the price, the reputation of the author/their employer, the habit of reading from them, the novelty of the information, the simplifying analysis of complex issues, the reliability of content, the community of interest, the power the knowledge enables, the emotion of a well argued case, the beauty of crisp prose, etc etc etc and act (go/no go) based on an assessment  of the value therein. (Disclaimer: Value researcher bias.)


  5. Information is definitely NOT free. Anyone who doubts this is welcome to write me a book on a topic of interest to me (shall we say, the Russo-German front in WWII?), and further, is welcome to expect no pay or reward from me.
    What *is* almost free is producing further copies of information once the first copy has been produced. Submit me that book, and I will send an electronic copy for free to anyone who wants it, and anyone who wants a hard copy can go to whichever print-on-demand service I submit it to.


  6. David: I used to own more than $10,000 worth of books, until they were destroyed in a house fire last year.  If mostly what I was really buying was the information in them, why can’t I have that information replaced for nothing? Did the fire destroy the information? Surely it just destroyed the physical books, which (according to the publisher theory) only accounted for a minor part of the price I originally paid?


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