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An Economic Earthquake

Amid the turbulent and disturbing stories coming out of Japan and the Middle East, some of the most economic important news was actually made by a news organization itself. The New York Times announced that content is no longer free. From now on, readers will have to pay to read the New York Times.

I may be completely wrong about this, and the New York Times will have to back down and provide its content free of charge again. If not, March 28th, 2011 will be the day that the world learned to pay for information that "wants to be free". To quote Stuart Brand's full quotation:

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.

i know this is unpopular, and as an insatiable consumer of information on the internet, I'm voting against my own interests. Yet I am not completely disappointed to see us having to pay for information, rather than having it paid for by advertisers. I've always been a huge skeptic of the notion that advertising can pay for everything else we do, as was believed ten years ago. The idea that we can pay for everything by enticing consumers to spend ever more money, strikes me as an unsustainable and undesirable way to run an economy.

Coincidentally, the House voted to stop paying towards NPR. As with the New York Times, subscribers will simply pick up the tab and NPR will continue.

Why do I think this is all for the best? Because once people begin to start paying for information that we use on the Internet, we will see some truly worthwhile endeavors and services emerge. The internet has been heading towards an abyss of trivial applications of a great technology, with most of the traffic being generated by teenagers wasting time on Facebook and Twitter, and others buying virtual animals for Facebook games, while real animals are needed by real people across most of the world.

I can't help feeling that if real people pay real money for real information and real services, we will see a renaissance of creativity - truly useful applications - emerge on the internet.

Sure, the trivial nonsense will continue apace - entertainment has its place in society too. But at least the internet won't be limited to just those ideas that can be supported by an advertiser shoving images to as many eyeballs as will tolerate it. This is an earth-shaking change.

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