Ashley Gorham


It was at the first Hackers’ Conference in 1984 that Stewart Brand coined the phrase “information wants to be free.” There are many ways to interpret this statement, but the most prevalent one is the “deterministic” interpretation. According to this reading, information is understood as possessing an innate tendency toward freedom—what it “wants,” it gets. Information is seen as self-moving and progressive. Implicit in this understanding is the belief that information will promote equality and democracy as it grows. The deterministic interpretation’s strongest proponents are the three W’s: Wonks, Writers, and the Wired. Politicians, political advisors, media members and technological enthusiasts are some of the most ardent and vocal supporters of this view. In this essay, this dominant view is critiqued and an alternative “democratic” view of information is offered. According to this interpretation, information may “want” to be free, but the wish is unfulfilled. In place of freedom, the democratic interpretation defines the salient characteristic of information as growth. While the two ideas are similar, they are not the same. The promise of freedom is liberatory, while growth is more neutral and can easily lead to the multiplication of existing inequalities and asymmetries. While democracy is the inevitable result of the deterministic interpretation, it is the site of struggle in the democratic interpretation. Such an understanding of information is enacted in the work of hacktivists who seek to democratize information by subjecting it to democratic authority and in so doing reveal the ambiguous relationship between information and democracy.