Information as a commodity – at #radliblon

I pitched this session at the Radical Librarians Collective (formerly Radical Library Camp) unconference in May following encouragement on Twitter from other delegates.

I wanted to open a¬†discussion on information as a commodity¬†using Marx’s analysis from Capital as a starting point to provide theoretical perspective.¬†I hoped for free-flowing discussion about problems this relation introduces into information work – if indeed what I proposed was a¬†reasonable¬†analysis.

Commodities and the labour theory of value

Commodities in Marxian economics¬†are products of human labour¬†that have a value. They are typically sold or exchanged on the market and¬†can be physical goods, or intangible services.¬†Marx presents¬†various ‘cycles’ of¬†capital in his analysis, describing how money and commodities circulate by processes of exchange and how this introduces various contradictions that, Marx argues, lead inevitably to crises.

The notation takes a little getting used to. One of the simpler cycles in Capital volume 1 is:

M-C-M’

The hyphen means an exchange has taken place. Money (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) which are then exchanged for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1976 pp. 247-257).

Marx really gets into the idea of cycles of capital in Capital volume 2. More complicated but relevant to our interests as workers is the cycle of:

M-C‚ĶP‚Ķ-C’-M’

The ellipsis indicates interruption – here, capital moving from circulation into production.¬†Money (M) is used to purchase¬†commodities (C) in the form of means of production, and labour. These are used in a process of “productive consumption” (P) that forms extra value to produce new commodities (C’) which are sold for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1978 pp. 109-143).

I like Marx’s approach here because he recognizes the¬†central importance of living labour in the production¬†process of society as a whole. Important to¬†Marx’s labour theory of value is the idea¬†invested¬†capital is ‘valorized’ with added surplus value from the labour process of the workforce above and beyond the cost of their own labour.

One sobering implication of this cycle is that the labour power, that is our own time and energy, is also a commodity.

Information as a commodity

John Feather (2008 p. 109) states plainly information is a commodity:

Information is a commodity which is brought and sold. However difficult it may be to define how it acquires value, the fact of the commodification of information cannot be denied.

Marx’s examples are of their time and place so there is a lot about linen,¬†iron, and corn, and less about intangibles like information. I read Feather’s comment as¬†a rational and dispassionate¬†statement of fact about life¬†in the¬†information society.

The session took place in the library of the London Action Resource Centre so¬†I gave an example of a¬†book on the shelf (a single author monograph)¬†as a commodity that was produced for sale. No-one would¬†disagree¬†the pulp, card, ink etc. that makes up the print book are commodities and it follows¬†the content created by the¬†author’s intellectual process is also treated¬†this way.¬†Removing¬†the print book, if we present the same information in the form of an¬†ebook¬†we would still have a commodity.

Commodification and commoditization

A former BT phone box containing books in rural Essex.
A former BT phone box containing books, in rural Essex.

Straying from classical Marxian economics, information can in another sense be commoditized. To avoid confusion I use these meanings:

  • Commodification means making something¬†saleable that wasn’t before
  • Commoditization is the process of a product¬†becoming a simple commodity, where there is little to differentiate different¬†brands and suppliers

In the commoditized sense above, information becomes¬†independent of its intellectual meaning. The RLC session wasn’t focused on this meaning, but I mentioned it as I find expressions of this idea particularly dangerous. It can justify thinking along the lines of closing libraries¬†because the simple commodity ‘information’ can be delivered in other ways, for example books sold cheaply in¬†supermarkets.

Commodities and information work

What does this cycle of exchange, valorization of intellectual work, and commodified information mean for information workers? There were thought-provoking points made in discussion of which I will give a flavour as I was trying to facilitate rather than takes notes.

Dan Grace spoke about the idea of the knowledge commons, and how commons being enclosed and commodified is the start of a process of turning knowledge commons Рshared by all Рinto something exploited for private gain. Following the RLC conference Dan recommended The wealth of the commons edited by Bollier and Helfrich (2014) which is focused on resistance to this process. It is naturally enough Creative Commons-licensed and available online.

Charles Oppenheim noted that information has special characteristics related to its intangibility, for example:

  • It can be copied without loss of content. With digital media the¬†marginal cost of making extra copies¬†approaches¬†zero.
  • More than one person can own it without depriving¬†others of it, it is¬†not¬†“used up” in the way¬†goods and¬†services are.

Information is not like widgets rolling off a factory production line. Copyright is central as it represents an artificial limit on copying that, however originally intended, can be used to exert control over intellectual work. This introduces a contradiction in information work for the library worker who may oppose such control but have a responsibility of enforcing copyright in their workplace. We reached no easy conclusions about this particularly thorny problem.

I speculated on the “copyright¬†judo” of copyleft approaches such as Free and Open Source Software and Creative¬†Commons licenses. These approaches use copyright law as a lever to ensure enduring openness and freedom to use information-as-commodities for¬†whatever purpose the user wishes. The question is, does co-opting¬†these¬†levers for our own use get us far enough? Arguably not, as this approach still perpetuates control of intellectual work and existing hierarchies of knowledge creation.

That said, access is powerful in itself because knowledge in our minds Рversus information on a page or represented as bits Рcannot be subject to copyright or otherwise controlled. In higher education there are drivers from Hefce (2014) and others to provide open access to the quintessential commodity made in higher education, research.

I believe this driver is strong enough to make this process part of a changed institutional approach to the research lifecycle as a whole, but a more subtle reading of the policy includes the implication academics as knowledge workers should be more sensitive to issues in licensing and copyright of their intellectual outputs.

In discussion Stuart Lawson shared a proposed declaration for LIS professionals to make their own work open access wherever possible. Since the RLC event Stuart and others have worked on finalizing the LIS open access declaration.

Overall I felt the analysis worked, and discussion provided interesting food for thought around the characteristics that make information special and how its flows are limited or encouraged. The LIS open access declaration is a particularly inspiring professional statement of intent and I hope many library workers sign up.

Photo credit

Ever Conquest (Evergreen Container Ship) at the Port of Los Angeles – Pictures from the Sprit Cruises 1-Hour Harbor Bay Cruise (San Pedro, California) – Saturday November 2, 2013‘ by Flickr use Corey Seeman (license CC BY-NC-SA)

References

Bollier and Helfrich (eds.) (2014) The wealth of the commons. Amhurst, MA: Levellers Press. Available at: http://wealthofthecommons.org/ (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Feather, J (2008) The information society. 5th edn. London: Facet.

Hefce (2014) Policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework. [Online]. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2014/201407/#d.en.86771 (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Marx, K (1976) Capital volume I. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Penguin.

Marx, K (1978) Capital volume II. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin.