But Metcalfe never doubted the outcome. "It was inevitable," he says. "It couldn't have been stopped." His own contribution to victory was the pipe that would carry the freed information away from its white-room Alcatraz. And it isn't ever coming back.
THE FLOW OF INFORMATION, in lively gusts and eddies, is more or less continuous around Metcalfe. This truth dovetails neatly with his work. In fact, everything satisfying about life seems relatable to the burgeoning happy outcomes of simply letting information roam unfettered. Free-range information will inevitably produce benefits that are both logical and predictable as well as serendipitous and unexpected.
For instance, in high school Metcalfe loved the classic all-girl Motown group the Shirelles. Despairing of ever again dropping a diamond needle on their stirring rendition of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" he recently stumbled on their greatest hits 33 rpm vinyl LP on Amazon.com's auction site. "There was no hope that I was ever going to gget this album. In fact, I wasn't even looking for [it]," he says. "I just happened to be futzing around in Amazon.com, and it was like, 'Oh, there are people selling albums!' And now I have it. It cost me $15."
This matter of online auctions is one of the interesting trends Metcalfe thinks businesses should take note of: customers creating their own pricing on the fly. "We learned in elementary economics about supply and demand. In reality, it is very hard to find supply and demand curves that are dynamic. These auctions let companies optimize along supply and demand curves on a minute-by-minute basis. And that is good for economics. It is good for businesses, it is good for everybody. It is a win-win-win-win-win."
In its fluidly optimized state, information can be subversive. Customers can instantly interact with and choose from among a wider array of competing alternatives. And justice thereby prevails. "Many businesses rely on being monopolies within narrow geographical or topical areas, because information flow, in the past, [was so limited]." But the gracious protection conferred by those geographical boundaries is vanishing. "It's hard to be a monopoly anymore because your customers have access to [information] that lies outside of your little monopoly. That is going to be very disruptive."
He obviously relishes the idea that a system of broadly distributed information can right competitive wrongs. Information has a curative, purifying role to play in the world, in life, in business, shedding a cleansing light into corners where shady dealings might otherwise erupt. "The fact that communication is increasing means good news for ethics," he says, "because you can't keep secrets like you [might have done] in the past. If you ship a junk product, the community is going to be on you like white on snow."