By Doc Searls
January, 1992

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
-- T.S. Eliot

Information Age

The idea that we live in an "Information Age" first showed up around the turn of the '80s. John Naisbitt and others suggested that this Information Age would succeed the Industrial Age that had been with us since the industrial revolution ended the Agrarian Age and made possible a world of factories, high rises, unions and the rest of what for a century we called "advanced" civilization. Alvin Toffler heralded the beginning of a "Third Wave" in which we would enjoy a new "post-smokestack civilization." In the Information Age, it was said, powerful technologies of computing and communications would make possible a "service-based" economy in which "knowledge workers" who would produce goods by the sweat of their brains rather than their brows.

But less was said about the nature of information itself -- especially about the profound differences between the intangible products of mentation and the tangible products of manufacture. What kind of "goods" were information? How could their worth be measured? Was there such a thing as a "unit" of information? Could you put commodities of information in banks, lend them out, draw interest on them? For that matter, what changes in human values would an Information Age require?

We are in new territory here. And, for anticipating the future, the Information Age gets as little help from the Industrial Age as that period got from the ages that preceded it. Much of what we know about how industrial products are made, duplicated, sold, stored, used and valued, does not apply to information. Information is simply too different. The Information Age will have to discover its own rules.


Einstein said the best questions are the ones which, when children ask them, adults can't answer. "What is information?" seems to be one of those questions. Dictionaries are little help. All suggest knowledge as a synonym, but clearly knowledge is something more purely mental. Webster's defines information as "something told," and "knowledge acquired in any manner." American Heritage calls it a "condition of being informed" and "communication of knowledge." I believe information is the communicable form of knowledge. It is not what we know, but what we say we know. There is a big difference. It is often the difference between what adds and what doesn't.

"Knowledge," says Michael Polanyi, "is personal." It lives in our minds, mostly in the form of tacit understanding. Knowledge only becomes truly explicit when we bother to express it, and even then it may not be clear. This is why Polanyi says "we know more than we can tell." For example, we may know how to drive, or the route to a restaurant in a nearby city, but not know how to explain either one. Even with great gifts of articulation, we could never explain entirely all our knowledge of any subject. It isn't that our knowledge is too vast for explanation, but that knowing often lacks detail. Riding a bicycle is beyond full description by science, yet we simply know how to do it. When we inform somebody of our knowledge, however, we cannot help but reduce what we know to something less. That "something less" is information. What we know is knowledge. What we say is information. But while information is always a lesser form of knowledge, it is the only communicable form of knowledge.

Information theory suggests that we code our knowledge as the information we communicate, and that the receiver of our communications decodes and processes that information into knowledge of his or her own. This model is mechanical, and does not concern itself with the encoding and decoding processes, except to say that they are both flawed.

The problem with communication theory is that it presumes the codifiability of knowledge. The miracle of communication is that what we know cannot be codified; but it can be said. And our skill with language is what allows us to suggest much by saying little. One of the curses of the Information Age is that we, as gods to the machines we create, have made computers in our own image. We see their microprocessors as brains, their storage as memory, their processes as intelligence. Then, not recognizing ourselves as the gods we are, we start explaining our own operations in terms we use to characterize machines. Our short-term memory is a "buffer." Attention-span is "cycle time." Personalities are "operating systems."

The truth is not just that our brains process in "parallel," or that they are more complex computers than science yet allows us to design. The truth is that we are built to know and understand, not to process and store.

Consider that, when we read, we are not paying attention to the "data" on the page. In fact, what we read is not present on the page at all. The "process" of reading is oblivious to the "data" provided by letters, typeface, and even words and sentences. When we read, we rely on our knowledge of all those things to attend directly to what the author is saying. Our eyes scan the page while our minds perceive meaning. If we are sufficiently skilled, and the author's art is sufficiently expressed, we "get" what the author says.

But the world is hardly an ideal place. Few of us are expert at making ourselves understood. And when we consider the fact that we usually start each sentence without knowing how we will end it, it seems miraculous that we make sense at all. In truth, however, we are actually very good at just saying things. "Language is wonderful," Garrison Keillor jokes, "because it allows us to speak until we think of something to say."

And this, perhaps more than anything else, characterizes the Information Age. Ten years into it, and we're already drowning in the stuff. For this we can thank our "high" technologies, which have vastly increased information's natural power to abound. Thanks to printing presses and broadcast media, it is now possible for anybody to hold one-way conversations with literally everybody, whether or not anybody else is listening. Worse, if somebody is wants to find a single needle of information, they face searching through an endless variety of haystacks, each growing and changing constantly. To twist the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, there is "data, data everywhere and not a byte to think." The problem is not storage or distribution, but availability. How do we find answers to questions?

The media themselves are as much problem as solution. Given the quantity of information in the world, the high degree of specialization, and the rate at which so much of what we need to know changes, the stable information resources that sustained us in the past -- notably books and periodicals -- are often old even by the time they are published.

Libraries are museums for information, not banks where they bear interest.

Information Economy

Information is alien to all the notions we have built, over a dozen thousand years, about the commodities that, by trading, comprise a marketplace.

As things, commodities are "real." They have singular, tangible forms. Each commodity has a unit of measurement: an SKU, a bushel, an acre, a share, a cubic foot, a ream. Quantities of these units can be owned, accumulated, inventoried, bought, sold, distributed and re-sold. Their prices are subject to market forces that calculate worth by the degrees to which they are both wanted and scarce. The value of a commodity is increased by both its appeal to customers, and the difficulty customers have acquiring it. The reverse is also true. The value of a commodity is decreased by its lack of appeal and its abundance. All this is familiar business: our economy, our very lives, are built on it.

But information is something else. It is too non-physical, too non-singular, too anti-scarce to work as a commodity, much less as property. Though it can be bought and sold, it doesn't barter well because the seller still gets to keep it. One does not forget what one says just because another person understood it. This makes information the opposite of a commodity. The natural environment for a commodity is private ownership, and storage of some form. The natural environment for information is duplication and communications media. Printers. Copiers. Faxes. Phones. While commodities are most comfortable being held privately, information is most comfortable being held collectively. And even though it wants to proliferate and become abundant, its value may actually increase by that process. A good idea known by many is perhaps worth much more than one known by few or none. By this reckoning, the value of information may vary as the inverse of its scarcity.

So the question becomes, "what is most negotiable in an economy that produces an abundance of what everybody wants? The short answer is: time. Today it is easy to see our economy moving gradually from the gold standard to the time standard. After all, time is our most precious resource. Each of us is given an unknown sum of it as a gift of birth, and we have to use all of it before we die. Since it is perishable, it costs us not to use it. Since it is useful, it pays us to invest it. And since we risk spending so much of it just trying to find the right information, we feel we don't have enough of it.

The high value of time seems to be dawning on us so gradually that we almost don't notice how much we really care about it. Just look at today's top consumer technologies. VCRs. Microwaves. Answer machines. Cellular phones. Walkmen. ATMs. Overnight delivery. Faxes. Each is devoted to the "saving" of time. More than conveniences, these are investment instruments that allow us to make more of the one scarce resource we were granted at birth.

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