Money Speaks: The Information Battle Is Now Fought in the Market Place

Listener: 14 June,1997.

Keywords: Business & Finance; Literature and Culture;

Once it was “knowledge is power”, so the powerful kept the knowledge from the populace. Integral to the evolution of democracy was the making available of that information to everyone. Perhaps the high point was the 1982 Official Information Act (OIA), which makes it much easier to find out what the government is doing – or not doing.

A key element was the increasing availability of cheap means to carry the knowledge. Initially books were very restricted. The title “reader” for a senior university academic refers to the days when hand written books were chained to desks, and read out to the students. Moveable type transformed that. In the first fifty years of printing the numbers of printed texts exceeded all the manuscript texts provided in the previous thousand years.

It is important to distinguish between information and carrier. Philosopher Karl Popper described three worlds: the objective world, the subjective world that goes on in our minds, and a third world of ideas. However access to that third world, so crucial to the development of humankind, depends on artifacts from the objective world. Control those, and the ideas are controlled too.

Books are uncontrollable – even the restrictions in the Soviet Union were evaded by the typed copy of the samizdat which were secretly circulated; bibles were smuggled in. However the increase in types of carriers of information has meant that books are no longer the only, nor perhaps even the most important, source of formal knowledge. Journals and magazines, photocopies (which make the OIA workable), broadcasting, and now electronic data are all significant today. One might think this explosion of carriers would make information more accessible, but there are countervailing pressures to restrict accessibility. They are typically commercial.

Many people who thought such issues are irrelevant to them were nonetheless outraged when major sporting fixtures became broadcast on pay-television. But if some individuals are willing to pay to watch, what is the commercial logic of showing the game on a free-to-air channel?

Another retreat could be the pressure on public libraries to impose user charges. The free library movement was a nineteenth century commitment to making books available to all, even those who could not afford them. Above the entrances of Carnegie endowed libraries was the motto “free to all.” Yet, recent legislation requiring local authorities to review their activities has some investigating charging for their public libraries.

The same phenomenon is occurring at the national level, with the National Library and National Archives under pressure to charge users more because of the declining funding from central government. (The next thing they will be charging us for our certificates of births, deaths, and marriages.) Statistics New Zealand (SNZ) is in a similar position. There is a general acceptance that it should charge for adding value to its base statistics (as the Met Office does for the more attractive weather information it provides to the newspapers), but the statisticians recognize that they have a moral obligation to provide much of their data at lowest cost possible. The social science research ethic requires that the findings be reported back to those who are investigated. There is also the practical. SNZ relies on voluntary cooperation in its surveys, and needs to give something in return. What would it cost the government if we became so disgruntled we insisted on being paid before we filled in any forms?

The same applies to some of these other institutions. Would Walter Nash have bequeathed his invaluable papers to the state if he had known that National Archives might one day charge for their access? No wonder the archivists and the librarians are shoulder to shoulder with the statisticians resisting user charges.

Today “information is a resource” is the driving force. It argues all resources should be managed on commercial principles. and that the carriers should be charged for because it is hard to charge directly for the information itself. The logic is riddled with errors. Is information a resource? Should all resources be charged for? Are commercial issues all that matter? Most of all, “information is a resource” obscures “knowledge is power”. One suspects the rich and powerful are enthusiastic about restricting information to only those who can pay.

It is not sufficient to say that the world wide web has increased access to information. Not everything is on the web (much of that which is, is of low quality). What useful information to citizens is being put on the web, and by whom? in addition, the citizen faces setup costs of a computer and the transaction costs of line access (both, note, supplied commercially) to be overcome. Should our libraries be offering online access to the web? (And at what cost?)

The economist in me says there has to be some user charges for some information. But I would want their scope and level decided after a coherent and thoughtful debate. Instead we have fiscal and legislative bullying generating pressures to succumb to commercialisation, while democrats of goodwill resist.