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Information wants to be free*

*No, that’s not what he said, and no, it’s not completely true.

Thirty-five years ago, in a conversation with Steve Wozniak (pioneer of the personal computer), Stuart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog along with many other foundational disruptions), said:

On the one hand you have — the point you’re making Woz — is that information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable — the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.

This is prescient, and it deserves to be quoted or at least paraphrased correctly.

Information wants to be free or it wants to be expensive.

How can both be true?

Information that seeks the network effect, that is most useful when lots of people know it, that changes the culture–well, making this information free is the best way to accomplish this effect. The alphabet wants and needs to be free, because if you had to pay to learn and use a set of letters to make words, it wouldn’t be universally adopted and would fail. The same is true for the pursuit of hit records–getting played on the radio is the goal of the label, even if the radio is giving the music away. The music is ‘worth’ more when it’s a hit.

The tension for so many creators is that they’re used to friction associated with their mass-produced work, friction that used to pay them better than it does now. This is the shift that Brand is talking about in half of his statement.

But some information is valuable because it creates barriers to entry, gives a few people a head start, confers status, solves a specific problem in real-time, etc.

There’s no reason to price the design of a custom addition to a home by a famous architect at free. The person who’s buying it doesn’t benefit from it being free–they benefit from the status that comes from it being scarce.

And the information that comes from a meeting that’s only open to paying attendees is worth more because you got to learn it and others didn’t.

And Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire because his company sells information to companies just a few seconds faster than they can get it anywhere else. The cost of the information creates scarcity and the scarcity creates value.

[This post was inspired by a poorly edited headline and article in the Times yesterday that got the quote wrong and is also remarkably (or sadly, not remarkably) sexist. It’s hard to imagine it having the same tone if it were written about a man.]

The imbalance between media and advertisers

For a very long time, major magazines and TV networks were very strict about the ads that they would run. The format, content and impact of an ad had to be approved before it showed up on network TV or The New Yorker.  There weren’t many good places to run ads, so the media companies had the power.

Now, thanks to algorithmic media buying and the rise of digital, the media company sometimes has no idea who is even placing the ad, never mind how it works or what it’s for.

Ads aren’t vetted, they interrupt and they engage in a race to the bottom. As a result, your phone starts blaring an ad when you’re in a meeting trying to check the train schedule. And the biggest digital companies have given up and simply ignore the content and format of their ads. When a media company does try to establish standards, the algorithms simply go somewhere else.

The shift has gone from the context the ad runs in (which magazine) to the consumer it is targeted to. And that means that if a consumer sees an ad on platform A vs. platform B, the advertiser doesn’t really care. They’re just picking the cheap ones.

Ultimately, this destroys the value of the media company, corrupts our culture and hurts the long-term viability of the brands that have worked so hard to cut corners.

It’s possible to stand up and insist on better instead of cheaper. The entire world doesn’t have to look like the worst Android app.


“There are several reasons”

That’s another way of saying, “It’s complicated.”

If you’ve got one reason that’s good enough, share that reason. The other reasons are extra, and if you spend a lot of time on them, you’ve just told us that it’s complicated.

Difficult decisions, on the other hand, ARE nuanced, and they involve adding up several benefits to overcome several negative outcomes as well. In those cases, it’s worth beginning by highlighting the things we’re going to avoid as a result of making this choice.

Skill vs Talent

You’re born with talent.

You earn a skill.

I don’t think there are many places where talent is the key driver of success. The biggest exception might be that a drive to acquire skill could be a talent…

Assuming you have that, though, assuming that even once you did the hard work to learn something important, then you have what you need to develop even more skills.

Go do that.

We need generosity and passion. And even more so, we need people who care to develop the skills to deliver on their promises.

What’s it for? a simple example

The lunch you’re catering at the wedding of a friend next week—who’s it for?

It might be for the bride, because it’s her special day, so you should make food she likes.

It might be for the guests, because they’re the guests, and so you should make something universally appreciated, the way you’d cook for a Super Bowl party.

It might be a chance to have an audience for your food, so you can cook to impress.

It might be to earn status for the parents of the bride, so nachos are out of the question.

It might be to demonstrate conspicuous consumption. Spending far more than you have to in order to amaze and impress the guests.

Or it might be to get by without your budget showing, so that prestige is conferred at a lower actual cost.

It might be to please the facilities manager, who is a real jerk, and who has power over you.

Or perhaps your waitstaff will walk off the job if they have to hand roll and serve 1,000 stalks of asparagus in puff pastry.

Begin with a simple question: What’s it for?

Will you join us? A new workshop for creatives

The magic of the workshops we’re running is that we do them together.

That’s not how most online education works. Which is odd, because learning almost always works that way. Find the others. Give and get feedback. Learn by doing. See the work, do the work, repeat.

Our new workshop launches today. It’s about trusting yourself enough to be seen. It’s for writers, artists and anyone who seeks to create as a professional. The Creative’s Workshop is about understanding genre, showing up to do the work and figuring out what it means to turn pro.

It’s a writer’s workshop, a seminar and a mastermind group rolled into one. Not just for writers, but for anyone who seeks to be creative as a professional.

This 100-day workshop features interviews with Cyrille Aimee, Eliot Peper, Christian McBride, Gabe Andersen and the extraordinary Patricia Barber. As well as a video interview I did with Cathy Heller and a priceless riff from Brian Koppelman. But most of all, it features you and people like you.

Because it works when we do it together.

PS if you join us today, click the purple circle on the site. You’ll save quite a bit on tuition. The circle decreases in value each day until it’s gone.

Come, make a ruckus.

“But I can see it!”

Which is closer, the sun or Buffalo, NY?

Something might be vivid and clear and right in our face, but that doesn’t mean it’s nearby or accessible.

If you’re seeking to get things done, looking for the attainable but hidden opportunities is a productive strategy.

On the other hand, if you’re a leader, seeking to inspire, it helps to focus on an iconic goal, one that’s always present, right over there.

Something’s more interesting than this

And now, that’s always true.

Whatever you’re doing.

No matter who you’re with.

Something, somewhere, is more interesting than this.

And it’s in your pocket.

All the time. As long as the battery lasts.

There’s an alert, a status update, breaking news. There’s a vibration or a text, just waiting. Something. Right now.

Until infinity.

Unless we choose to redefine whatever we’re doing as the thing we’ve chosen to do, right here and right now.

Again and again and again

Ruts don’t dig themselves.

Most of the time, we’re in a rut because that’s precisely where we put ourselves.

Actions become habits, and habits get repeated because they feel safe.

The easiest way to make things more interesting is to simply stop repeating your habitual behavior.

And that often comes from reacting to triggers. Remove the triggers and you can alter the habits.

Tiny changes. Different ways to keep score.

Tomorrow comes daily. But we don’t have to take the same route to get there.

Greater than the sum of the parts

Some of the greatest buildings of all time were created by unskilled craftsmen using cheap and readily available materials. McMansions, on the other hand, are often created by highly paid workers and endless supplies of expensive materials.

Caviar isn’t required to make a great meal… but a talented, thoughtful chef definitely makes a difference.

Who is designing your system? Who is putting in an unreasonable amount of effort to make sure it’s magical?