How to Out-Behave Your Business Competitors

This changed everything. Information, unlike land and capital, is not zero-sum; it's infinite. The more I have, the more you can have, too. And, unlike money, it is elastic; a dollar is worth a dollar no matter how much you desire it. Knowledge, in contrast, becomes more valuable directly in proportion to your need or desire for it. If you were told that you had a disease, for instance, you would pay much more for the information to cure it than you would if you were healthy.

In the days of fortress capitalism, a professional class of lawyers, doctors, accountants, and other gatekeepers of knowledge took advantage of information's elasticity and profited from it in two significant ways: They hoarded knowledge (like any other commodity) and meted it out in small doses for high fees (typically, to people who really needed it because they were in trouble, ill, or their metaphoric houses were otherwise on fire). Simultaneously, they built indecipherably specialized language and complex codes -- like legalese, the tax code, and other "fine print" -- as barriers to keep people from gaining easy access to what they knew. This increased their value. The more someone needed certain information, the more they were willing to pay a specialist to explain it.

The wired world, by conducting information so quickly and cheaply, in contrast removed the layers between individuals and knowledge, making the professional specialist somewhat less valuable and the information itself more so. The unit cost of information dropped dramatically, from the $300 you might pay a private investigator to locate a deadbeat dad, for instance, to the $50 or so you might spend to do a nationwide online records search yourself. Power and wealth shifted from those who hoard information to those who could make it available and accessible to the most people.

This simple fact makes the habits of fortress capitalism obsolete. With the ascent of information as the engine of commerce, power has shifted to those who open up, who share information freely. The young titans of the information economy -- Yahoo, Google, Amazon, eBay -- understand that it is no longer about hoarding, no longer about creating secrets, no longer about keeping things private; it is about reaching people. Google, now a company with one of the largest market capitalizations in the world, trumpets its corporate mission as nothing less than "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."5 Think about it: a multibillion-dollar enterprise organized around giving stuff away. Amazon.com also gives it away: not its products -- it sells books and other stuff, just like thousands of others -- but its knowledge. Its success lies in the novel and inventive ways it has developed to share information. Wish Lists, Search Inside!, and Listmania Lists use information to powerfully connect Amazon customers in commoninterest communities. EBay takes this idea a step further, organizing its entire market into a self-governing community based on the free flow of information about its users. The new information-based economy affects everyone, not just those in the information business. Every business, in almost every industry, has undergone a major transformation in how it accomplishes its goals. Manufacturers no longer employ assembly-line workers; they employ trained knowledge workers who can keep the automated manufacturing systems running.

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