Do we want to commercialize access to knowledge?
As we enter a new age, maybe art will be free. Who says art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?
(For purposes of this posting, I’m going to use the words “information” and “knowledge” more or less interchangeably — not because information and knowledge are the same thing, but because sharing information is functionally the only way to transfer knowledge.)
In an earlier posting, I took Robert Darnton to task over what I felt to be substantive problems with his “Three Jeremiads” essay. In that posting I made passing reference to Darnton’s question about “commercializ[ing] access to knowledge,” and said that it raised an issue worth discussing in a separate posting. Since then, I also came across a fascinating interview with legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, a quote from which is also cited above to help set the stage for this piece.
We could argue all day about whether art is just a subset of information, but we can probably all agree that art and information share at least one very important characteristic: both exist only as the result of an investment of labor. Artists and writers take raw materials (words, musical tones, data, paint, etc.) and invest time, energy, and intellectual expertise in the work of turning those materials from formless abstraction into objects or statements that convey a set of meanings.
This is the only way that either art or information can come into existence, which in turn means that there’s no such thing as “free information.” You or I may not pay for the information we use, but that doesn’t mean it’s “free” – it just means that the cost of creating the information and getting it to us has been borne by someone else.
In the face of this reality, both Darnton and Coppola ask the same question in different ways. However, Coppola’s version is arguably more intellectually honest, because it acknowledges the connection between “costing money” and “getting paid for one’s work.” If he had stopped with his second sentence (“Who says art has to cost money?”), the obvious answer would have been “the artists who work to create it.” And he acknowledges that obvious response later in the interview, suggesting that filmmakers might do better to give up the idea of making their living as filmmakers and instead get other jobs, making movies in their spare time as a labor of love and giving others access to their art at no charge. Young filmmakers might resent such advice from someone who has already made his fortune as a filmmaker, but at least it recognizes a fundamental reality of information economics.
By contrast, when Dr. Darnton asks whether “access to knowledge” should be “commercialized” he implies that access to knowledge is possible without commercial considerations entering the equation. And he’s right, in a way — all of us exchange knowledge all the time without any expectation of commercial gain. But that’s not the kind of knowledge exchange he’s discussing in the essay from which the above quote was taken; that essay is about access to scholarly products generally, and to the commercially published books included in the Google Books corpus in particular.
The fact is that there is no such thing as free access to the knowledge containers he’s discussing; there is only the question of who will pay. That was true of this particular fund of knowledge long before Google entered the picture.
Even in the nonprofit sector, information workers generally expect to be paid for their labor. Amateur writers, musicians, and artists may work simply for the love of their art and distribute their work to others at no charge – and people like this do indeed make up a pretty large percentage of the world’s writers, musicians, and artists. But the artistic and intellectual product of dedicated amateurs with unrelated day jobs comprises a relatively small share of the knowledge to which scholars and researchers need access. If we want access to knowledge produced by professional knowledge-creators, then access to it will have to involve a significant element of “commercialization” in that someone will have to pay the creator; someone will have to absorb the cost of preparing the product for distribution; and someone will have to absorb the cost of distribution.
When Darnton asks whether we should “commercialize access to knowledge,” I suspect that what he’s really asking is whether access to knowledge ought to involve costs to the end-user. I suspect also that what he really objects to is not cost itself, but obvious and direct costs (such as end-user fees or subscription charges) as opposed to hidden and indirect costs (such as taxes, tuition, student fees, etc.). This is not a dishonorable position; as I pointed out in my earlier post, hidden and indirect charges are a perfectly reasonable way of covering the costs of some things. But they are not innocent of commerce or of marketplace competition. Those, like me, who work in the public sector creating intellectual products that others can use at no charge (like this posting, for what it’s worth), compete for our jobs with others who want them; are retained at significant cost by our employers, who compete to retain us if others vie for our services; are evaluated based on the quality and utility of our outputs; are compared with competitors at other institutions; are required to produce those deliverables that are demanded by our clients and stakeholders. University press monographs cost money; so do journals from nonprofit societies. A commercial exchange may take place in the nonprofit sector, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t commercial.
Ultimately, what matters to readers, scholars, researchers, and other users of information products is not whether or not information transactions are “commercial.” What matters is whether information is a) available, b) accessible, and c) affordable. “Free” (i.e., paid for by someone else) lies at one end of the affordability spectrum, and all of us welcome that price when we can get it. However, we tend to like it less when it’s the price offered for our own work. To eliminate “commercialization” from the knowledge economy would mean, necessarily, to reduce drastically the amount of information that will be created – because it would mean, by definition, that only amateurs will create information.
Does that really sound like the recipe for a better information future?