Let’s Go Back In Time, To Marin Headlands In 1984

by | Sep 8, 2011

Steward Brand is an icon, and a man I’m learning more about. His thinking is central to a talk I’m preparing to give at Geekend in Boston next month.

It was in 1984 that Brand, founder of Whole Earth Catalog, helped put together the first ever Hacker’s Conference, held in a remote part of Marin County, north of San Francisco.

At the conference Brand famously said, “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

This tension between free and paid is at the heart of my upcoming talk, so it was a pleasure to find this half-hour public television program that documented the pivotal event where the words were first uttered.


I watched the program last night and was struck by how early the free versus paid argument shows itself. Some of the hackers present believed all software should be free, given that each new solution is a building block for the next problem to be solved by them or by someone else. Others in attendance held to a more traditional point of view, claiming that they didn’t want anyone tampering with their product.

Today, these themes continue to play out. Apple is a closed systems design shop, whereas open source developers continue to make not just great products, like Word Press, but also solid businesses built on support for the free software.

I don’t typically think of software as content, but it is. Brand says information wants to be expensive, or free. Information is broad enough to contain both software and content. But what makes one offering free and the other paid? Is it the whims of the producer that dictates price, or is the price set by market conditions?

My own answer to this question is both. You set the price on a whim, then adjust it over time as you get a sense for what the market will allow. For example, many content-driven projects begin as free offerings focused on building an audience. Once the audience shows up in droves every day, the company, or individual, can start to introduce paid offerings in the form of subscriptions (typically for premium content), merchandise, events and consulting, to name a few of the possibilities.