The 2013 Grafstein Lecture in Communications
Professor of Strategic Management
Jeffrey S. Skoll Chair of Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
In 1905, a then obscure Swiss patent examiner published a paper that revolutionized physics. The paper’s motivating issue was how to observe simultaneous events. In the decades previous, the issue of simultaneity had perplexed many, none more than those in charge of running railroads. Many collisions could be traced back to scheduling problems and a lack of consistency in the time registered by clocks in different locations. Engineers and inventors struggled to find ways of synchronizing the clocks in different locations. The surge in demand for information about “the time” had occurred because of the increased interconnectivity of locations worldwide. Information on the time needed to be shared internationally. The problem was how to secure agreement on what the time was. As Einstein – the patent examiner in question – worked out how information about the timing of events could be shared, he realized that time itself was essentially a matter of perspective. The story of time is one of shared information. Information on the time is of little value if only one person knows it.
Stewart Brand famously declared, “Information wants to be free.” Except he didn’t (not really). And it doesn’t. Information is much more complicated than that. What information really wants—what makes it more valuable, useful, and immediate —is to be shared.
Sharing enhances most information’s value. The business models of traditional media companies, gatekeepers who have relied on scarcity and control, have collapsed in the face of new technologies. Equally important, sharing can revive moribund, threatened industries even as it helps to explain how some platforms have, almost accidentally, thrived in this new environment.
Joshua Gans holds the Jeffrey C. Skoll Chair in Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship and is a Professor of Strategic Management at Rotman (with a cross-appointment in the Department of Economics). His research is primarily focused on understanding the economic drivers of innovation and scientific progress, and he has core interests in digital strategy and antitrust policy. Joshua serves on the editorial board of Management Science, is managing director of the Core Research consultancy and writes regularly for Forbes, HBR and Digitopoly. His book, Information Wants to be Shared, was published in 2012 by Harvard Business Review Press.
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