What if Google started sending us bills?

The value of information is a difficult thing to assess, because information is a peculiar commodity: in many respects it doesn’t comply with the basic laws of economics. In the material economy things are pretty straightforward: if you sell your car to someone else it means that you don’t have it anymore: you’ve transferred the whole thing. But if you sell your information to someone else, you still have the information at your disposal and you may sell the same information over and over again to other people. Unlike cars and other products in the material economy, information can be duplicated and distributed at almost zero marginal costs.

It is tempting to conclude that from an economical perspective such free information is literally worthless. This is obviously not the case: we know that the web is extensively searched for information, which means that information is certainly valued. Still we’ve become greatly accustomed to the fact that most services on the Internet are free of charge. We buy into the original idealism of the Internet as a place of freedom and open access and reject commercial barriers. Imagine what would happen if Google charged us for each search, each photo upload, each video view, each email sent. What if Twitter charged us for each tweet? What if Facebook changed its strategy and started sending bills? The effect would probably be a worldwide revolt against these companies. The Internet community would quickly launch mirror sites and alternative services that would bypass the spoilsports, just as they do in countries where the authorities restrict freedom of speech by censoring Internet traffic. We simply don’t want to pay, which is peculiar. It demonstrates to what extent the digital economy is different from the material economy.
It is hard to define the value of a single bit. While the price of a single car is highly correlated with the efforts needed to produce it, the price of information is not necessarily linked with the production efforts. In principle, you may become a millionaire by spending 2 minutes to writing the lyrics of a song that happens to become a number one smash hit. Or, imagine that you’re lost in the boiling desert without food and water: you’d pay a million for any simple information that would guide you to civilisation (and a fresh beer). The value of information clearly depends on context and need.

This week technicians of the European Space Agency sent a signal to the remote Rosetta space probe, which was launched in 2004 to meet the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet in 2014. Right after its launch all Rosetta’s systems were purposely switched off to save energy. After many years of lifeless flying through space the probe was supposed to wake up. This week the technicians sent out their wake-up and anxiously waited for a reply. It took a while for the signal to reach the probe 800 millions of kilometres from earth, and for the probe to wake up and respond. But then after quite some anxious moments the technicians received this single “bleep”, indicating that the one billion project was still on its way. It’s very much like the simple but long-anticipated “I will” of a loving couple. The value of a single bit is priceless.

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