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Here’s a less obvious but even more fundamental opportunity. Knowledge is “non-rivalrous” (to use a term from the economics of property). That means we can share it without dividing it, and consume it without diminishing it. My possession and use of some knowledge doesn’t exclude your possession and use of the same knowledge. By contrast, familiar physical goods like land, food, and machines are all rivalrous. To share them, we must take turns or settle for portions.
We’re very fortunate that knowledge is non-rivalrous. We can all know the same facts or ideas without my knowledge blocking yours or yours blocking mine. We’re even more fortunate that speech is non-rivalrous, since this allows us to articulate and share our knowledge without reducing it to a rivalrous commodity. We can all hear the same spoken words without my listening blocking yours or yours blocking mine.
But for all of human history before the digital age, writing has been rivalrous. Written or recorded knowledge became a material object like stone, clay, skin, or paper, which was necessarily rivalrous. Even when we had the printing press and photocopying machines, and could make many copies at comparatively low cost, each copy was a rivalrous material object. Despite its revolutionary impact, writing was hobbled from birth by this tragic limitation. We could only record non-rivalrous knowledge in a rivalrous form, much as we could only translate one poem into a different poem.
Digital texts, however, are non-rivalrous. If we all have the equipment to support them, then we can all have copies of the same digital text without excluding one another, without multiplying our costs, and without depleting our resources. Digital writing is the first kind of writing that does not reduce recorded knowledge to a rivalrous object.
I’ve heard physicists refer to the prospect of room-temperature superconductivity as a “gift of nature”. Unfortunately, it’s not quite within reach. But the non-rivalrous property of digital information is a gift of nature that we’ve already grasped and put to work. We only have to stand back a moment to appreciate it. To our ancestors, the prospect of recording knowledge in precise language, symbols, sounds, or images without reducing the record to a rivalrous object would have been magical or miraculous. But we do it every day now and it’s losing its magic.
The danger is not that we already take it for granted but that might stop short and fail to take full advantage of it. The point is not to marvel at its potential but to seize the opportunities it creates. It can transform knowledge-sharing if we let it.
We take advantage of this gift when we post information online and permit free access and unrestricted use for every user with an internet connection. But if we charge for access, enforce exclusion, create artificial scarcity, or prohibit essential uses, then we treat the non-rivalrous digital file like a rivalrous physical object, dismiss the opportunity, and spurn the gift.