Does open access to information exacerbate inequality? That’s an interesting question, raised in this post and also here. The gist is that richer people have more resources to take advantage of the larger amount of information available; poorer people lose out, sometimes very directly.
A very interesting and well-documented example of this empowering of the empowered can be found in the work of Solly Benjamin and his colleagues looking at the impact of the digitization of land records in Bangalore. Their findings were that newly available access to land ownership and title information in Bangalore was primarily being put to use by middle and upper income people and by corporations to gain ownership of land from the marginalized and the poor. The newly digitized and openly accessible data allowed the well-to-do to take the information provided and use that as the basis for instructions to land surveyors and lawyers and others to challenge titles, exploit gaps in title, take advantage of mistakes in documentation, identify opportunities and targets for bribery, among others.
(Thanks to Yolanda Ma, SCMP’s social media editor, for pointing them out on her blog.)
At some level, this isn’t surprising: The rich have always had an advantage on any development, whether in information technology or opening new frontiers. The real question is, overall, does greater information access (and presumably, more powerful tools to analyze it) help or hurt that situation?
Arguably – and this is all in the realm of logic and thought experiments, rather than empirical data – the greater the information asymmetry, the more advantage accrues to wealth. If documents are locked away in a dusty warehouse miles away, and making a copy costs an arm and a leg, the rich are always going to dominate that area. If records are free, online, and easily searchable, then rich people, with access to more computers, more staff, and well-paid analysts, will probably do better than poor villagers scraping by on a shared dial-up line. But in theory, at least, the gap has been closed.
That doesn’t mean we should be complacent about all of this – anything that can be done to help those villages access the information more easily, or analyze it better, should be done. And it is a warning not to simply subscribe to Utopian views of free information. But nor is it an argument that we’d all be better off knowing a bit less.
There’s a broader question in here, though, and that’s the issue of what journalists should – or can – charge for what we do, theoretically in the public interest.
It’s really an accident of history that the work most of us do is subsidized by advertisers; and as a result most readers pay a pittance to get – let’s just stipulate for the purpose of this argument – tremendously valuable information. If that model is going away – and it’s at least slipping away – what does that mean for both journalists and readers/users and our broader mission of public service?
To take an example: Bloomberg sued the Fed for information about TARP funds and where they went. A great public service, and certainty something US taxpayers would want to know. But – and I know Bloomberg has lots of other outlets, but bear with me – then again, that information (and analysis of it) is intended to go to people who pay a thousand bucks or more a month for a Bloomberg terminal. That’s hardly getting it out to the teeming masses.
And as the industry fragments, and broad, mass-reach publications turn into smaller, niche-audience sites, what does it mean in terms of disseminating information to a broad group of people. Do $1,000-a-year newsletter readers get better information that your average Joe? Well, in theory they always have, but what happens when the average Joe’s (advertising-subsidized) newspaper gets thinner and thinner and the information asymmetry grows? There are any number of former journalists now doing “bespoke reporting” – in effect, private investigations – for audiences of one. Is that journalism? And to what extent should the “privileges” of journalists, such of them as there are – preferential access to events, records, etc – be extended to them?
And what’s a fair price to charge for all that? I like to get paid as much as anyone else, and I realize that the dollar or so cover price that readers used to pay isn’t as viable as it used to be. Doubling the price – to two dollars – may be fine, especially in a world where there’s also a lot of free information available; but what if it went to fifty bucks a day, which is closer to what a terminal would cost you?
At one level, of course, we should just let the market decide. And there’s no shortage of non-profits, or organizations with other business models that can provide some information for free. So maybe there’s nothing to worry about, or even think about.
But I’m a worrier.