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When I was in library school, we discussed the ways in which information is a commodity. We never actually decided on a definition of “commodity”; like pornography, we were expected to know it when we see it.

But anyone with a passing familiarity with Marx’s Capital knows that the concept of “commodity” is complex. So when the CBC runs a story with the headline ‘Data is the new oil’: Your personal information is now the world’s most valuable commodity I wondered whether the article would interrogate the concept of commodity used in the headline.

Firt of all, it’s interesting to note that the term “commodity” isn’t used in the article itself. The word “commodified” is: “The five most valuable companies in the world today… have commodified data and taken over their respective sectors”. But where the headline refers to “world’s most valuable commodity”, the article refers to “the world’s most valuable resource”. This is an important distinction, as a commodity and a resource are not the same thing at all.

For Marx, a commodity is distinguished from other products of labour by having both a use value and an exchange value. All products of labour transform raw materials and are useful to those who consume them; they have a use value. When I cook a meal, I transform raw materials into something that has use value for me when I eat it. But this meal has no exchange value because I did not cook it in order to sell it; it is not a commodity. This is one area where bourgeois economics obscures and mystifies a concept. An exchange value can be assigned hypothetically to the meal I cooked, but because I did not produce it for exchange and do not exchange it, that exchange value is really a fiction.

For a commodity to have an exchange value, it must be produced for exchange (sale). Production requires - as I said above - the combination of labour power and raw material (my cooking and raw food in the example above). Under conditions of private property, those who do the work do not own or control the means of production for large scale commodity production. Individually, I can purchase some commodities (food) and I can prepare them (labour), but I can’t compete economically with, say, Aramark, because I do not own and control the means of production at a sufficient scale. If I did, I would no longer be a worker, but a capitalist.

The separation of worker from the means of production means that the worker has no choice but to sell her labour on the labour market to the person who does own and control the means of production, the capitalist. Only by bringing together labour and means of production can a capitalist set commodity production in motion. According to the labour theory of value, only labour power can add to the exchange value of a commodity. Labour power is transferred primarily through the immediate labour of the worker put to work on means of production, but it is also transferred (at a lower rate) from the past labour stored up in the means of production themselves.

In terms of data, the means of production are: computer hardware, network infrastructure (both private and state-owned), software (which has the value of the labour of the software developers who produced it). I would argue that this is what Marx calls fixed capital, or infrastructure, like a warehouse or a factory - something that supports production, and transfers some value to the commodity, but is not itself transformed. What is transformed, what is the actual raw materials turned into a commodity, is pre-existing data. For example, the current state of Facebook’s social graph can be thought of as so much raw material, like wool to be spun into yarn, or wood to be turned into houses. In Facebook’s case, the moment of “primitive accumulation”, the initial capture of capital which allowed Mark Zuckerberg to begin the cycle of capitalist turnover, was precisely the creation of an initial data set using data he gathered while at Harvard University (“We had books called Face Books, which included the names and pictures of everyone who lived in the student dorms”).

So much for raw materials and the means of production. In order to bring labour power to bear on this raw material, a capitalist would ordinarily find labour for sale on the open market, negotiate an (illusory) free contract for a particular wage, and put labour to work. With the companies in question in the CBC article - Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google (Alphabet) - the trick has been to find sources of free labour power. All that is required is the marketing of slick user-experience and the temptation of peer-sharing (for social networks) and convenience (for stores like Amazone) for people to start working on the raw material of data already stored within these systems. Every transaction, every click, within Facebook or Amazon is a piece of micro-labour, a virtual assembly-line of disparate, separated individuals. Not only is the work done for free, but because there can be no combination of workers in this situation, all of the costs for the maintenance of this workforce are borne by society, not by the capitalist.

The CBC article is coy about what exactly is being sold. They claim it is “access”, but access to a commodity is not the commodity itself. Like all commodities, data has a socially determined exchange value based on the average, aggregate, and socially determined value of the labour power. Marx argued that the heart of capitalist accumulation was the concept of surplus value. A worker is not paid for the amount of work they do; on the contrary, they are paid for the amount it costs them to reproduce themselves, to be able to work again the following day (and, in the end, to have children who can also become workers). The contract struck between capitalist and worker is for this much (the wage), but a worker can transfer more value to a commodity in a given working day than their wage; the rest of the labour is transferred to the commodity for nothing. We are all - as workers - unpaid for a portion of our working day.

The interesting thing about crowdsourced data as a commodity is that none of the costs of reproducing the labour force are borne by the capitalist; they pay no wages to anyone doing the work of transforming the data set which the capitalists sell as a commodity. All of the costs are borne by society (“privatize profit, nationalize risk”). This means that the rate of surplus value is 100%; all of the exchange value of the data sold by these companies is pure profit (minus whatever minuscule costs are associated with infrastructure).

It is in this respect that data is unlike oil. Oil is a natural resource, a raw material, and the labour that goes into it for extraction and transformation is handled by traditional industrial workers who have contracted for a wage. There is a limit to the amount of surplus value that can be extracted from the oil industry. Data-as-commodity theoretically has no limit on the amount of surplus value because labour costs (to the capitalist) are nil.

This is a different problem - in fact the complete opposite problem - we face with automation (e.g. robots taking jobs). One of the standard practices when faced with the requirement to reduce labour costs/increase productivity is for the capitalist to replace human labour with machines. But machines cannot and do not produce surplus value - only living labour can do that. So automation carries within itself the seeds of the collapse of capitalist profitability. Crowdsourced data work, on the other hand, can theoretically increase the amount of human labour to the limits of the global population without ever having to pay for it.

This, from my perspective, is what it means for data to be a commodity.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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