Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

the cost and value of bits, and their content, signals and noise

Information has value, and the value of information is like any other commodity a measure of its scarcity, so as we have access to more and more information the value decreases, eventually approaching 0, but never quite getting there.

From today, when we are overloaded with almost free bits of information travelling backwards in time:

  • the cost of mobile communications, per minute airtime charges
  • the cost of landline communications up to the mobile phone era
  • the cost of a telegram
  • the cost of a single message relayed by messenger

Similar curve:

  • the cost of a web page (almost all of them are free to be viewed, including this one)
  • the cost of an e-book
  • the cost of a printed book
  • the cost of a hand copied manuscript

The storage of information follows (physical cost of a bit) a similar curve, and over time we can expect the cost of storage to also drop to almost 0.

As the value of the bits and the ease with which they can be produced goes down the value of their content goes down as well !

This is because many more people will have to means to fill bits and more and more trivial stuff will find its way in to the streams of information. This has all kinds of interesting consequences, for one if the current generations’ information products are going to be preserved for the future then this will be the first generation about which future historians will have no real questions, everything is documented, from the most important events to the most trivial ones.

Streams of consciousness (blogs, like this one) will document even what a very large number of individuals (to paraphrase Douglas Adams, at least, the ones that have internet) were thinking at the time.

A couple of hundred years ago the clergy made a real effort to burn those books that they thought were going to influence the minds of the people around them counter to the effect that they themselves had in mind. A 21st century book burning would have little or no effect, for one there is so much information now that people are no longer reading books that are important enough to change history. The reason is not that people are not reading those books, it’s just that percentage wise the ‘good’ stuff is such a small fraction of ‘all’ the stuff that the impact of the good stuff is much diminished. All the media out there are competing in a giant zero-sum game for the attention of all the people out there, the more trivial stuff there is and the easier it can be generated the less the ‘good’ stuff will get attention.

Which leads me to a secondary effect of the decrease in the cost of the actual bits, it directly leads to a devaluation of the value of the content of those bits and the measurable real world effect of each bit in the real world. Sure, some bits will have more impact than others but on average that impact will decrease as the cost of bits goes down.

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