From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

July 22, 2001*: Something for Nothing.

Though I often feel pangs of guilt when I find myself anthropomorphizing anything, let alone an inanimate and ill-defined entity such as information, I have to admit that I still cling to the outdated notion that "information wants to be free". My first web experiences were with version 1.1 of Netscape, and I still remember the sense of wonder and exhiliration that accompanied entering a search term into what must have been the first version of AltaVista and getting instant results. Here was the real thing: information that I was actually interested in getting, brought straight to a computer screen (and usually shortly thereafter to a printer) at the click of a mouse. It was an information junkie's dream. It seemed that anything could be found on the web, and it was free.

For five complete years I've taken the time to write a monthly column on some aspect of what I've grown to call "life on the internet". These columns have been posted on the web site of the School of Education of Tel Aviv University, and the entire world has had access to them (though having access and being accessed don't necessarily have anything in common). No monetary remuneration has ever been received for these columns, and though I admit that I've often fantasized about the possibility of selling-out to the highest bidder (as in: "hey, I'd love to pay you a substantial monthly salary for you to sit and muse and then write what you're going to write anyway"), I readily admit that I like it that way. I have gained immensely from information that others have posted to the web - articles in online magazines, professional papers made available by their authors, personal musings on blog-like sites - and I've seen these columns as my way of contributing something (hopefully of value) back.

In a previous column I referred to Gareth Hardin's classic The Tragedy of the Commons. In that column I used Hardin's piece on ecology as a starting point for an examination of the "gimme" ethos and its relationship to file-sharing tools like Napster and their chances of success. But the same holds true for the web in general. Though I often refer to the web as a vast library, libraries don't call upon us to contribute (other than pay our taxes and return what we check out). The web does. It assumes that if we don't find what we're looking for on the web today, then we ourselves should post it tomorrow. Instead of saying "it doesn't exist on the web", the proper, perhaps no longer existent, web ethos holds that we should make it exist. And though I'm one of the lucky people who over the years has actually received payment for writing content for various web sites (and I'm certainly not going to complain about that) my anarcho-conservative utopian vision is one of making voluntary contributions, and these columns have provided me the opportunity to do just that. The fact that I don't get paid for these columns provides me, perhaps, with the biggest return on my investment.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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