Imagine that I had a set of instructions for making $1 million. My instructions fit on a single sheet of paper. Font size 12. Double-spaced. No funny business.
Follow every step to the letter, and a million bucks would be yours.
What would you be willing to pay for access to that document? $1000? $10,000? $100,000? More? After all, even if you spent $500,000 on the instructions, you’d make that back plus another $500k. The instructions become like a slot machine that always pays out.
I’m not sure who I heard this little capitalist parable from—but it was one of the first explanations of the value of information that really stuck with me. We’re used to figuring out the value of things based on their size, materials, and quality. But how do you wrap your head around selling a digital product—an ebook, online course, or workshop—for more than your first car cost?
My first car was a 1986 Dodge Aries station wagon—and my mom paid exactly $300 for it.
Gaining new information often catalyzes massive change, and this scenario is designed to prove the value of this intangible asset.It helps us make sense of how something that seems so insignificant in material terms could be so life-changing in real terms.
But in reality, information alone doesn’t create change.
There is no set of instructions for making lots of money. This parable is a deliberate fiction, designed to erase the complicated context of building a business or career. And while I can’t remember who I heard that hypothetical from, I know that they had some information to sell me for a ridiculous price.
So what is the value of information? How can we understand both the market economics and the human economics of information? Because if ‘information wants to be free,’ why is it so damn expensive?
In the second installment of “The Economcs of…,” we’ll dive into some historical and ideological context of the information economy, including the origin of the phrase “information want to be free.” From there, I’ll share a case study from my own history as an information marketer of sorts. I’ll compare and contrast the higher-priced business coaching program I ran for five years, Quiet Power Strategy, with the low-priced business classes I taught at CreativeLive. And finally, I’ll present an alternative theory of the value of information products courtesy of feminist economics.
In this article:
Alright, we have a lot to cover. Strap in and enjoy the ride.
Information Wants to Be Free
The first Hackers Conference took place in 1984 in the Marin Headlands (of course) just north of San Francisco Bay. During that first conference, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, raised the tension between programmers and marketers. He expressed frustration that for-profit companies won’t pursue potentially transformative ideas simply because they don’t see a product-market fit.
In response, one of the organizers of the conference, Stewart Brand, characterized the “paradox” this way:
“…information sort of wants to be expensive because it is so valuable—the right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other.”Stewart Brand
Of course, the only part of that response that’s remained in the public imagination is “information wants to be free.”
Today, we carry around access to a vast amount of information in our pockets.
But information wasn’t always so easy to access. Before the internet became ubiquitous, families might have bought the Encyclopedia Britannica as a home reference. The encyclopedia would set you back, on the low end, about $1200 in 1985. That’s about $3500 adjusted for inflation—a lot of money for information that might be outdated the moment it crossed your threshold.
But it’s nothing compared to the relative cost of information before the invention of the printing press and moveable type. Before Gutenberg’s invention, books were copied by hand. Books—and knowledge generally—were the purview of the super-elite. They were the only people who could afford to maintain the kind of labor force (i.e., monks) that would allow them to access a minimal level of knowledge.
So it’s true that information has become cheaper and cheaper over time.
‘Information wants to be free’ can also mean that information wants to be liberated.
To flow freely. To be unregulated. Hackers have long been associated with actions that “liberate” information from the chains that bind it. (It’s been 10 years since legendary hacker and activist Aaron Swartz took his own life after facing harsh prosecution for releasing a vast amount of academic research to the public.) In the US, investigative journalists often make use of FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, which makes it possible to request government documents that aren’t normally released to the public.
But if information flowed freely and cost us nothing, we wouldn’t talk about an ‘information economy.’ We wouldn’t have trillions of dollars tied up in creating, extracting, and protecting all kinds of information. We wouldn’t have a system of intellectual property that turns information into a private asset that can be leveraged for profit.
Stewart Brand’s off-the-cuff comment was not a flash of singular genius. He was riffing off what Steven Levy had described as one component of the “Hacker Ethic:” information should be free. Brand’s innovation, if you can call it that, was making the concept of information a subjective force. Information wants to be free. Information wants to be expensive. But information is not a subjective force. It doesn’t want anything.
Who wants information to be free?
And while it might seem like semantics, turning information itself into the subject that wants is important. It’s important because it obscures who is actually doing the wanting. Who wants information to be free? And who wants information to be expensive? The public (in any of its various instances: voters, consumers, citizens, etc.) wants information to be free because knowledge creates options and confers power. The rich and powerful—many of the newly ascendent tech elite who considered Stewart Brand a friend—want information to be expensive because it maintains their control and creates a highly profitable asset for them to trade.
Stewart Brand’s Claim to Fame: An Information Product
The information product that put Stewart Brand on the map was the Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968. The Whole Earth Catalog was a compendium of product reviews, excerpts, and images. Open the catalog’s cover, and you will find a statement of purpose:
We are as gods and might as well get used to it. …a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog.The Whole Earth Catalog (1968)
If that sounds at once both crunchy hippie and Atlas Shrugged, it was by design.
This juxtaposition of the counterculture aesthetic with an ethic of rugged individualism eventually became known as the Californian ideology. In short, Brand and the vaguely countercultural eventual billionaires who sought him out are key influences on the creative, consumptive, and disruptive culture that’s defined the last few decades.
Lest one confuses The Whole Earth Catalog with a free zine or a catalog that arrives unbidden in the mail, the catalog was a product that sold for real money. At a time when paperback books sold for 50 cents, the catalog cost ten times more—$5.
The Whole Earth Catalog typified Brand’s characterization of the tension between information being free and information being expensive. Brand “borrowed” heavily from the books and products the catalog reviewed. Flip through its pages on the Internet Archive, and you’ll find page after page where the vast majority of the content is not an original review, but excerpts and diagrams copied straight from the works featured. He was perfectly happy to take others’ work for free and incorporate it into a product he sold at a premium.
The Whole Earth Catalog combined the most superficial values of a small segment of the counterculture and created a highly marketable brand. That’s not a pun—it’s just true. The catalog was a symbol of counterculture entrenched in the values of, well, consumer culture. Owning the Whole Earth Catalog made you feel subversive—even when you benefitted from immense privilege and profited from the early Silicon Valley boom times.
Malcolm Harris described Brand in a 2022 book review for The Nation this way:
At one point in time, it was possible to see Brand as the goofy grandfather of a gentler, more thoughtful capitalism headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area: decentralized but still ambitious; environmentally conscious and techno-optimist; philosophical and even spiritual rather than materialistic and stultified.Malcom Harris, “The Zen Playboy”
But that time is not now. Despite his continued influence in Silicon Valley, New York, and Washington, today it’s much easier to see Brand as Harris does, a huckster adept at using his family’s money to put himself in rooms with people who were hellbent on making billions while billing themselves as humanity’s great (white) hope.
I see many similarities between the Whole Earth Catalog and the current information marketing milieu. And I’ll get to those in the final section of this piece. But before we can get there, let’s consider what goes into putting a price on information in the first place.
How Do You Put a Price on Information?
Well, it can help to consider what a price is in the first place. And to do that, we need to consider the role currency plays in how we arrive at a price.
Money as currency is a way of describing the relative value of two unrelated things.
We might be able to say that three apples are worth about the same as, say, three pears. They’re both fruits of similar size and nutrition. But it’s much harder to compare the value of my waterproof wool sneakers to my bright turquoise KitchenAid mixer. They’re made of completely different materials, and I use them in completely different ways. But I can say that my sneakers cost about $100 and my mixer cost about $300. Now I have a way to describe their value relative to the other—which helps me decide how to spend my money in the first place.
In this way, money is a lot like a system of measurement. There are many ways to communicate my height, for instance. I could say I’m just over half the height of a basketball hoop. Or I’m as tall as a stack of 44 hardcover books. But that’s not helpful—you might not have a visual reference for the height of a basketball hoop, and you don’t have the same stack of 44 books that I have. That’s why we have a system of measurement that we can all agree on. I’m just about 5 feet, 5 inches tall. Or, put another, more popular way, 1.65 meters. Now we’re on the same page.
Buyers Versus Sellers
Okay, so currency allows us to compare the value of two unrelated things. And price is a way to denote the value of one of those things for the purpose of exchange.
The seller wants to maximize the money they make by finding the highest price that maximizes the number of people who will agree to part with whatever unrelated thing they happen to associate with that price.
To put a price on information, the seller must consider what the potential buyer is willing to part with to attain that knowledge. And to decide a price for information is acceptable, the buyer must consider whether the benefit of attaining the knowledge is worth what they have to give up to get it. Sounds a lot like opportunity cost, right?
Let’s revisit the example we started out with: the 1-page document with clear instructions on how to make $1 million.
As a “use value,” instructions for making $1 million are worth $1 million. But in terms of exchange value, those instructions will fetch a far lower price. And that’s because we’ve gotta work for it!
Our hypothetical buyer understands that they’ll have to implement the instructions to make good on the promise. Since that labor is transferred from seller to buyer, the price of the instructions goes down. The buyer also understands the potential for stress and uncertainty that comes with following the instructions. Plus, acting on the instructions might take a toll on the buyer’s relationships or peace of mind. And then the buyer must also weigh how much time it would take to produce those instructions for themselves.
That’s a pretty long list of considerations! What’s more, every potential buyer will see those considerations through a different lens. This is why pricing information is so difficult. And that’s just the buyer’s side of the equation.
The seller considers the amount of time they spent learning the information they’re now selling, the chance it will work the way they say it will, the care with which they’ve communicated the information, etc. But those things only matter as much as they are relevant to what the buyer gains by buying.
It doesn’t matter if the seller spent a decade learning what they know if the buyer could now learn that information in 6 months of sleuthing. It doesn’t matter if the seller used this information to accomplish a great feat if the buyer can’t reproduce it. It doesn’t matter if the seller has put great care into communicating the information if the buyer’s learning style or neurotype doesn’t work with that form of communication.
So to go back to Brand’s statement, sellers want information to be expensive because they’re invested in what it took to produce that information (and motivated by profit). And buyers want information to be cheap (or free) because there are far too many variables to consider when it comes to the value of information.
And yet—online courses, learning communities, reports, and other forms of information products are big business.
Ironically, most people get rich selling information by giving information away for free.
This makes me wonder if maybe it’s not information being sold at all.
Case Study: CreativeLive Classes vs Quiet Power Strategy
I’ve sold many different types of information products over the last 14 years: ebooks, templates, written courses, video courses, live courses, coaching programs, and subscriptions. But I want to focus on the startling difference in price between the courses I’ve taught on CreativeLive and the cost of the business coaching program I offered called Quiet Power Strategy.
Between 2013 and 2022, I taught 15 courses of varying lengths and scope on the CreativeLive platform. The first 12 of those courses were taught live in front of a studio audience and were broadcast free of charge to thousands of live viewers. The last three, which I recorded in June 2022, were taught direct-to-camera. CreativeLive packaged each of the courses as individual products available for $49 to $149, or through their Creator Pass subscription for $149 per year.
In 2014, I taught a boot camp class that took 5 full days of filming—more than 30 hours of content. But most classes clock in around 12-18 hours of content—still a considerable amount of work. On top of filming, of course, I also had to develop each class and produce a slide deck and workbook. I typically developed classes over 12 weeks and devoted a full workweek to producing the slide deck toward the end of that time. In other words, I put a ton of labor time into each course. And I gave up the chance to pursue other revenue opportunities during that time.
Ultimately, I made much less money as a creator teaching for CreativeLive than I would have had I taught those classes on my own. However, using the CreativeLive platform to teach eliminated a lot of the stress I felt teaching on my own. So the price of those courses—and the revenue share I earned from them—made a lot of sense to me.
On the other hand, in 2013, I started offering a business coaching program that would eventually be called Quiet Power Strategy. The first couple of times I ran the program, it cost about $1500 (if I remember correctly…). It was four months long and included recorded audio modules, worksheets, asynchronous personal feedback, and Q&A sessions. It was a hybrid coaching program and cohort-based course before “hybrid coaching programs” or “cohort-based courses” became trendy information product styles.
Eventually, the program grew, and the price went up. I think the last time I ran it in its original form, the price was $3500—a steal for business coaching but pricey for an online course in 2016. By then, I could enroll 40-50 business owners and split them into small groups facilitated by trained coaches. It was still a hands-on program relative to what others offered, but I didn’t have to be the only one with my hands on it.
Today, there are many changes I’d make to how Quiet Power Strategy’s client experience and learning environment worked. I made a lot of mistakes! But I very much still stand by the framework and the importance of interactive small-group learning.
Both my CreativeLive courses and Quiet Power Strategy were information products of sorts. And there was a significant overlap between the information I shared in both. So why the giant disparity in price?
Why did Quiet Power Strategy cost 24 to 70 times more than my CreativeLive courses?
The answer might seem obvious: Quiet Power Strategy came with coaching and feedback that I couldn’t deliver in a CreativeLive course. One type of product had interactive support mechanisms built in, and the other did not. CreativeLive courses can be inexpensive because they externalize labor onto the customer, while Quiet Power Strategy retained more of the cost of labor within the product delivery.
In other words, if you want me to do more of the work, you have to pay more. If you’re willing to do more of the work, you can pay less.
So, where does that leave us on the value of information? Well, my case study implies that the value of information is relatively slight. What is much more valuable is the labor involved in supporting clients. Again, that might seem obvious. But the implications of it are probably not.
The Value of Care Work
In the online business and side hustle world, information products have been sold as the key to passive income. Don’t sell your time, the gurus tell us. Package up that information and put a price tag on it. ‘Working for your money is for suckers,’ they seem to say.
While there’s been a small shift on this front in recent years, service-based businesses can seem like the “also rans” of entrepreneurship and independent work. They’re a stepping stone to the bigger profit and higher profile a passive income products-based business can generate. Offering a service makes sense only as long as it takes to turn that service into something you can sell in your sleep.
So here’s my not-so-wild hypothesis:
Services are stigmatized because they are feminized.
A service-based business is a care-based business—to one extent or another. All that client care, relationship-building, and personalization? That’s women’s work.
Care work is also racialized and associated with the working class rather than the ownership class. But I’m going to focus on the gender implications today.
Information products—and to an extent, productized services—are masculinized. Information products, after all, are services with the care work removed, automated, or embedded within them. The care work—to the extent it’s there at all—is deemphasized or made invisible.
Feminist economists make this same critique of the gig economy, social media companies, and any corporate strategies that promote outsourcing care work to underpaid, precarious workers who are more likely than not women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people, and/or queer people.
I want to be clear that there are good businesses based on information products. And there are bad businesses based on services. There are people of all genders who do both kinds of work. What’s critical here is that the gender (i.e., power) dynamics have real economic consequences.
So how do information products deemphasize or remove the care work central to how they work?
When we compare the once-and-done unsupported knowledge product with the supported, interactive knowledge product, it’s easy to see the latter’s value. Most often, this value is attributed to the results—as in, “courses with support are more valuable because participants get better results.” And certainly, that is true most of the time.
But assigning the value to the results makes it easy to ignore the value of the labor that goes into those results. Students do tend to get better results when instructors customize a curriculum for the cohort they’re teaching, provide feedback on participants’ work, and create a classroom environment that encourages active participation. It’s the difference between trying to learn calculus by reading a book on calculus and sitting in a classroom with a good calculus teacher, right? A good teacher is infinitely more valuable to most people than a book.
This form of care work is critical to the value of high-end information products.
With few exceptions, a high-end information product with glowing reviews and a passionate student community incorporates a massive amount of care work. Some of that care work might be done by virtual assistants or junior coaches. Some of it might be embedded into the curriculum or learning management system. And often, care work is taken on by other participants or past students of a program on a volunteer basis. Understanding and creating systems for care work is critical to the success of an information product.
Paying for care work is also critical. On the more passive side, it means paying for software that makes learning easier or investing time to create clear guidelines for engaging with the product. On the human side, it means paying the people who do care work on behalf of participants.
But economically speaking, care work doesn’t pay.
Most care work doesn’t even qualify as work when it comes to macroeconomic measures like the gross domestic product.
The GDP is the big number we use to measure the health and growth of the overall economy of a nation. In the US, child care, elder care, housework, and other care work are not counted if that labor is done for one’s own use. If you send your kids to daycare, hire someone to clean your house, or outsource the care of your elderly parent to a home healthcare worker, that is counted in the GDP—but the relative value of those services is compared to the “free” option. And so, both in real compensation and relative status, those jobs rank extremely low.
We know that care work in an information product is valuable in the same way we know that care work in a household is important—we miss it if it’s not there. Actually, we don’t just miss it—things often don’t function without that care work. And yet, it is barely (if at all) valued financially.
It’s not a coincidence that today, we might outsource care work to gig workers. We might ask a DoorDasher to pick up lunch. Or we’ll hire an InstaCart shopper to select and deliver our groceries. Or we might even hire a TaskRabbit worker to wrap gifts, clean up after a party, or even assemble toys.
But we don’t think about the person—the gig worker. We think about the app. We don’t “hire” an InstaCart shopper—we use the app and wait for our groceries to arrive. These companies have figured out how to profit from hiding care work. We don’t think about how these companies exploit the people who do the work because we don’t think about those people as workers at all (if we even think of them as people).
When it comes to information products, the value of care work plays out in several ways.
First, if we acknowledge the value of the care work that makes an information product valuable, we might create a care-oriented container for the information product. We’d then set a price that covers the labor that goes into creating that container as well as the potential value of the information. This is what I tried to do with the Quiet Power Strategy business coaching program.
Another way it might play out is that we recognize that we want to minimize the care work involved with an information product. We ask the customer to take on that responsibility and set a much lower price that takes that risk into account. This is how a low-price model like my CreativeLive classes work.
Both of those models are effective. And they’re relatively fair, as long as they’re priced appropriately, workers are compensated correctly, and customers are informed about what’s on the menu and what’s not in terms of care. Those are big ifs, of course.
But another way I see this play out with information products is to ignore the care work altogether. To ignore the invaluable contribution of the community managers, virtual assistants, or junior coaches who make this stuff work. To ignore the massive risk that customer takes on when they buy a self-paced course or sign up for a subscription. Care work becomes another mundane task to make more efficient or to automate outright. Fewer and fewer resources are dedicated to care—even as profits soar.
Don’t Buy the Fantasy
The information product creator can tell a tale of mind-blowing results and the potential for life-changing transformation in the same way that Stewart Brand told a tale of personal empowerment through individual action. The price is high—and so is the burden to the consumer. The price is high—and the probability of success is low, low, low. The price is high—and the revenue flows disproportionately to the creator rather than the care workers who make it possible.
There is simply not enough care embedded in the product to justify the price or the promise.
In this scenario, the information product creator, like Brand, sees their status rise to new heights. They’re a hero—not merely another coach, consultant, or teacher. They’re a visionary—not someone you could hope to have access to let alone receive care from.
In the last few years, I watched as more and more information marketers seem to take a step in the direction of care work.
They talked about building communities, enlisting other coaches who could offer hands-on help, or launching cohort-based courses. Some of this was a genuine shift in the direction of program integrity. And I’m glad about this.
But quite a bit of this “new trend” was simply adopting the language of care work without actually investing in care work—just as Stewart Brand adopted the language of counterculture without investing in organizing or systemic change.
Information products are a drop in the bucket of the knowledge economy. But whether we’re talking about online courses, data brokers, consulting firms, or digital publishing, we must remember that information isn’t actually what’s being sold. What’s being sold is care—and that care is either done well, done poorly, or merely gestured at for marketing purposes.
Knowing the difference helps us become better creators, consumers, and providers.