Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Information should be free -- or at least cheap

Wired reported recently on a Kindle owners' revolt. Angry that what they believe is the promise of $9.99 Kindle books has not always been kept, some have taken to using Amazon's product tagging system to label Kindle items that cost more with the phrase "9 99boycott."

What's interesting about this little exercise in consumer power is that it would be hard to imagine it happening with printed books -- paper between covers. A physical book is an object. We accept that it has costs. We're used to being charged for objects. When a textbook costs a hundred dollars, we complain. But we would never think of demanding that textbooks in general shouldn't be more than fifty dollars. Some books are big, some are small; some are hardcover, some are paperback. Some are in great demand, others sell only a few copies. All those factors, we agree, should contribute to setting the price.

But when you take the physical factors out -- when you reduce a book to pure information, discarding what we have to admit are features extraneous to its core purpose -- the notion of cost, and therefore of appropriate price, becomes somewhat different. With e-books, it's almost as cheap to sell a million as it is to sell one. No paper or cardboard to buy, no ink, no shipping. Sure, there's still authorial and editorial costs, and demand (although no supply) has a role to play.

Yet people feel a different relationship to information than they do to things. Namely, they feel like they have a right to it. We're willing to pay for information, but we don't want to be gouged. A song costs 99 cents. A book costs $9.99. Sure, these are prices that were originally handed down to us by those first offering the product, but we know that you can't fancy up an e-book by adding a camera or a bottle opener. It is what it is, and there's no reason to jack up the price. Once we get a sense of what it's worth to the people selling it, all the power shifts to us.

In short, we've been empowered -- or is it liberated? -- by the shift from a physical medium to a purely informational one. It didn't have to be that way, but because of the way the Internet grew and the passions of the people who kept it out of hierarchical and corporate hands, here we are. Kinda makes me feel ... optimistic.

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