Commodification in the Information Age

The images and theme come from the popular YouTube video Did You Know? 3.0

The focus of videos like these on the quantitative aspects of information (measured in bytes) rather than the qualitative demonstrates the treatment of information as a commodity. This focus presents a view of information with value intrinsic to itself rather than use value in relation to other commodities. In addition to reinforcing the pseudo-futurism of high-tech globalization, it presents the idea that regardless of how the information is applied or what the information itself is about, the information itself has value beyond its potential use or exchange value. The very act of producing information, whether that information concerns Harry Potter fan fiction or cluster bombs, is seen as beneficial to society.Thus before the commodification process is complete, the commodity is already fetishized.

The universalization of information-as-commodity presents an appealing worldview to many who use information technology on a daily basis. As long as society keeps producing information in these so-called “exponential times,” it’s bound to come up with solutions to all manner of sustainability problems, or so this view implicitly argues. It obfuscates the ecological consequences of information technology. It legitimizes the current dependency-based model of international trade by selectively showing the implications of information technology- it focuses on raw quantities of data and ignores the exploitation currently undertaken in extracting the resources necessary for computers. This perspective makes it all the easier to rationalize the already common ends-justify-the-means arguments for corporate globalization and soft imperialism. Another dangerous implication of this commodification is the continuing trend towards the “factory model” of academia, in which tenure is increasingly difficult to find and academics are made to compete with one another for increasingly scarce funding (while tuition continues to increase well beyond the rate of inflation). While unfortunate, it is a logical extension of this treatment of information- universities are simply trying to produce a valuable commodity in the most cost-effective manner.

The strengthening of intellectual property rights through trade agreements and institutions like the World Bank is presently laying the groundwork for the new pseudo-commodity form to be traded on the open market like any other quantifiable good. It is unlikely, however, that information will be explicitly exchanged by the byte (like steel by the ton)- rentier arrangements have been far more profitable as of late. Some contradictions will have to be overcome or displaced (as they typically are in the process of commodification), such as the problem of meta-information. Should information about information be treated as part of the previously produced information, or entirely new information? Meta-information will almost certainly have an impact on the use value of other information, so normalizing its treatment in the capitalist framework will be a goal for those dealing in it.

Commodification of digital information is already well underway, and can be seen in the prevalence of “digital sweatshops” like microstock photography site and even simpler labor forms:

At the bottom of the pyramid are mindless tasks that are still too tricky for a computer to handle. Amazon’s little-known but game-changing Mechanical Turk offers tasks for as little as penny a pop. …And for those who need work done, these services also offer unprecedented flexibility: tasks can be ramped up instantly, at prices that reflect intense competition within a huge labor pool. (via Newsweek)

This represents its application at the extremely simple end, and predictably the compensation for the workers’ labor power in no way reflects the exchange value of the services these companies provide. At the richer end, rights to the information necessary to produce new technologies are being rented out to production companies. This commodification represents a huge potential for the absorption of surplus capital, (particularly in information regarding biotechnology, according to Harvey) and therefore the capitalist class will continue to make a serious effort to establish institutional arrangements conducive to market exchange of information.

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