As promised before, I would like to dig a little deeper into the meaning and complexities of the concept of free information, referring to the well known aphorism ‘information wants to be free’. No better way to start than by throwing in some good old definitions we can all find scattered on the web.
So stay tuned (or run away screaming) for Everything you always wanted to know about….free information, free knowledge, open knowledge, gratis knowledge, open science, open access, open content, copyright, copyleft and Creative Commons and most importantly, what the difference is between the lot of them.
First of all we need to establish the difference between information and knowledge. Often a distinction is made between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Together they form the knowledge hierarchy. One can find a lot of sources for the origin of this model, but it seems the original distinction was born in poetry. As T.S. Eliot wrote in 1934 in the opening stanza of the choruses from his play “The Rock“:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Milan Zeleny (who quotes Albert Einstein on his website with ‘information is not knowledge’, although I can find no source for this quote online nor can others) and Russell Ackoff are both said to have expanded the DIKW definition. The difference between the concepts comes down to something like this:
Data… data is raw. It simply exists and has no significance beyond its existence (in and of itself). It can exist in any form, usable or not. It does not have meaning of itself. In computer parlance, a spreadsheet generally starts out by holding data.
Information… information is data that has been given meaning by way of relational connection. This “meaning” can be useful, but does not have to be. In computer parlance, a relational database makes information from the data stored within it.
Knowledge… knowledge is the appropriate collection of information, such that it’s intent is to be useful. Knowledge is a deterministic process. When someone “memorizes” information (as less-aspiring test-bound students often do), then they have amassed knowledge. This knowledge has useful meaning to them, but it does not provide for, in and of itself, an integration such as would infer further knowledge. For example, elementary school children memorize, or amass knowledge of, the “times table”. They can tell you that “2 x 2 = 4” because they have amassed that knowledge (it being included in the times table). But when asked what is “1267 x 300”, they can not respond correctly because that entry is not in their times table. To correctly answer such a question requires a true cognitive and analytical ability that is only encompassed in the next level… understanding. In computer parlance, most of the applications we use (modeling, simulation, etc.) exercise some type of stored knowledge.” (source: http://www.systems-thinking.org/dikw/dikw.htm)
Important in this respect is that both information and knowledge are in this definition already seen as processed data. However, knowledge has an utilitarian streak to it, for, as the above definition says, its intend is to be useful. Information does not have this intent. It is just there, you can do with it what you want, make it knowledgeable in a fashion you see fit. Information already has meaning conveyed in it but lacks in a way direction, it needs an actor. The most important aspect to remember in this respect is that knowledge is information that has been put to use, adding another layer of value to the raw data (they also speak of the DIKW pyramid). This is an important difference which we will come back to later.
Now that we have established the difference between knowledge and information, let’s go back to the free-bit. What is the difference between free information and free knowledge?
When one googles free information, Wikipedia brings up ‘information wants to be free’, the slogan first coined by Stewart Brand. It has been, as Wikipedia says, given a normative spin by hacker Richard Stallman:
“I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By ‘free’ I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses… When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.”
Interestingly enough, Stallman here combines usefulness with information, into useful information. Is he talking about knowledge here? Not necessarily, information can be useful of course (as also mentioned in the definition above), only when it is put to use (again by an actor, requiring an action) does it become knowledge or knowledgeable. Information always also is potential knowledge and this is also what makes it potentially valuable (in the right hands). The Cyberpunk movement goes even further according to Wikipedia, arguing that information ánd knowledge should be free since ‘its internal force or entelechy makes it essentially incompatible with proprietary notions. Information is dynamic, ever-growing and evolving and cannot be contained within (any) ideological structure.’
I like the way Wikipedia says that with these notions ‘desire’ is put into information, it is brought to life in a way, craving freedom, needing to be liberated. But if one makes information come to life in this fashion (giving it an internal drive), doesn’t one also create a sort of living Frankenstein, putting agency in a lifeless abstract and in itself (though not potentially) useless concept? Doesn’t the Cyberpunk movement in this way destroy the distinction between information and knowledge? Or do they simply not approve of the above definition? Or do cyberpunks see themselves as the agency ‘liberating’ information, in the form of the so-called hacker?
And now what is exactly the difference with free knowledge?
I will get back to that later.