Even if that work is writing.
A weird commotion has broken out in the comments on Mark’s post. Unfortunately not about new forces and interactions in the dark sector, which would be great, but about the grave evil done by the profiteering meanies at Scientific American and their witting collaborators, Mark and Jonathan Feng. These two upstanding physicists have apparently written an article that you have to pay to read. It appears that the article is in some sort of “magazine,” an archaic collection of periodic writings that traditionally charge fees for people to access. Bizarre! (The comedy is kicked up a proverbial notch by people blaming the argument on “the extreme left.”)
There is an interesting and important discussion to be had about the best way to efficiently organize an economy of writers and readers in the internet age. This isn’t that discussion. The interesting discussion would consider the tradeoffs between systems with fees, paywalls, advertising, sponsorship, subscriptions, micropayments, and so on. This discussion, in contrast, was kicked off by “paying money for knowledge is plain idiotic” and went downhill from there. (Of all the Laws of the Internet, the firmest is the Second Law of Commentodynamics: in an isolated comment thread, disorder and waste heat only increase with time.)
Paying for knowledge happens all the time. We buy books and magazines, we pay to enter museums, we pay tuition at colleges and universities, and so on. Information on the internet is not, in principle, any different. There’s a lot that is available for free, and that’s great. It does not follow that it should all be free.
If enough resources are free on the internet, it will certainly become more difficult for outlets such as traditional newspapers and magazines to charge for content. They have to both 1) make the case that they add some sort of substantive value, and 2) make the fees small enough and unobtrusive enough that people won’t mind paying. It’s not the only model; at the moment, giving things away but associating them with advertising seems to be more prevalent. We live in an era when the timescales over which technology is changing are substantially less than the time it takes for new economic structures to emerge and mature into equilibrium. This doesn’t change the basic fact that people like getting paid for the work they do, or they might not do it. Which, if that work consists of providing useful services like interesting articles about science addressed to the general public, would be too bad.