John Perry Barlow wrote song lyrics for the epically touring American rock band The Grateful Dead. The band was known for its eclectic mixture of musical styles, epic live improvisational episodes, and hordes of devoted fans that followed the musicians on tour. Among these fans were the 'tapers', who recorded more than 95% of the Grateful Dead's live shows. In contrast with typical expectations of behavior at live concerts, recording Grateful Dead shows by audience members was not considered inappropriate. On the contrary, it was allowed, even facilitated by the band and their sound crew. The band encouraged exchange and distribution of these tapes, as long as it was purely noncommercial. Inspired by this experience, Barlow went on to articulate an unconventional theory of the economy of information, and how the way we value information is almost diametrically opposed to the way we value physical goods. While the latter is driven by scarcity, information is more valuable when it is more accessible and usable. His argument is encapsulated in the following passages from an article entitled 'Selling Wine without Bottles: The Economy of Mind on the Global Net', which first appeared in Wired in 1993:
In regard to my own soft product, rock and roll songs, there is no question that the band I write them for, the Grateful Dead, has increased its popularity enormously by giving them away. We have been letting people tape our concerts since the early seventies, but instead of reducing the demand for our product, we are now the largest concert draw in America, a fact which is at least in part attributable to the popularity generated by those tapes.
With physical goods, there is a direct correlation between scarcity and value. Gold is more valuable than wheat, even though you can't eat it.
While this is not always the case, the situation with information is usually precisely the reverse. Most soft goods increase in value as they become more common. Familiarity is an important asset in the world of information. It may often be the case that the best thing you can do to raise the demand for your product is to give it away.
As scientists, ideas are our business, and information is our product, so recognizing the economy of ideas may help us maximize the value of what we do.
Taxonomy is a fundamental science that provides the scaffolding for biology. But the true value of taxonomic data remains unrealized because basic biodiversity information remains fragmented and unevenly accessible. Taxonomy helps us recognize species and map their distributions by generating text descriptions, images, and records of when and where they have been observed. Current rates of species extinction, habitat loss, and climate change mean that taxonomy has never been more relevant. Biodiversity is one of the most information-rich fields of human knowledge , but advances in basic cybertaxonomic infrastructure have only recently provided the tools to organize biodiversity information in ways that respond to a wide range of user groups, including ecologists, land managers, and interested citizens, not to mention the benefits of readily accessible information to the global taxonomic community. The call to revitalize taxonomy by embracing the internet has been sounded for more than a decade . The time is ripe to significantly increase the volume of taxonomic information freely available online. But simply posting information online will not automatically reinvigorate taxonomy. There are myriad online sites dedicated to particular taxa or projects. These are useful to users interested in questions within the site's domains. But the greater potential lies in mechanisms for aggregating primary source data in ways that allow users to filter and recombine data easily and flexibly for whatever purposes they imagine [1,3,4].