Information capitalism dominates the production and flow of information across the globe. It produces massive information institutions that are as harmful to everyday people as they are powerful. To this point, Information Literacy (IL) educators do not have a theory and pedagogy of information capitalism. This article appraises the current state of political economy in IL and begins to build a foundation for teaching a political economy of information capitalism.
These are economically and politically tumultuous times. The Great Recession of 2007-9, the rise of right-wing populism across the globe, a life-threatening/altering global pandemic, and the threat of species-ending climate change have left many feeling uneasy about the present, let alone the future. One bright spot is the unprecedented number of people who have poured into the streets to demand that Black Lives Matter, but this was sparked by horrifying police brutality filmed and circulated online. In the meantime, the day to day operations of librarianship continue, permeated by these anxieties. In this context, libraries have seen the impact of increased corporate domination, budget shortfalls, and the corporatization of higher education. We are gouged by publishers like Elsevier who offer package subscriptions with exponentially increasing costs while they rake in exceptionally high profits. Elsevier had a 31.3% profit margin in 2018 amounting to about $4 billion (Elsevier Fact Sheet, 2019). Many corporate library vendors have consolidated to further ensure market power and control, a process which has often rewarded the largest companies. These companies are positioned to potentially consolidate further during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is in part because they have the resources to further entrench their products in libraries by offering services that are free in the short term, but convert to high cost in the long term. While companies like Elsevier make record profits, library workers of all types face increasingly precarious work arrangements and they serve students who are anxious about affording skyrocketing tuition as well as outrageous textbook prices. Students are facing an information climate in which it is difficult to know which sources to trust because of an abundance of political information and disinformation. Simultaneously, their data is being extracted by numerous social media sites (likely owned by Facebook or Google) and library vendors and publishers (Lamdan, 2019), and their behavior is being manipulated by corporate algorithms seeking profits and political power. In the midst of these challenges, each term, teaching librarians get the opportunity to teach students Information Literacy (IL). How can librarians use this opportunity to work locally with students to think through and have an impact on these massive political and economic problems?
In her 2019 blog post Information Literacy’s Third Wave, Barbara Fister argues that we are entering a third wave of IL education, a wave that focuses on the systems that structure our information environment. The first wave involved teaching students to answer questions through navigating library resources. The second consisted of teaching students how to maneuver the rise of the internet as an unwieldy site of information circulation. The third wave, she argues, needs to respond to the vast commodification of the internet. She demands that we “have to think about the economics underlying both the distrust of institutions and these new institutions of capital that depend on gathering and analyzing the minutia of our lives for predictive and persuasive purposes….” Librarian scholars are piecing together new ways to understand and teach about information structures. Librarians aptly describe the neoliberal foundations of IL and make a strong case for how learners should be aware of knowledge construction in media (Nicholson, 2018; Drabinski, 2017; Seale, 2012; Enright, 2012; Eisenhower and Smith, 2010; Haggerty and Scott, 2019; Bussell, 2018). But, to this point, the conversation has not fully developed into a coherent analytical force that describes the hierarchies that guide the flow of money in information systems. The field of political economy (of communication) can provide answers to some of these challenges, and tie them together in a theory that we cannot ignore.
The “Information Has Value” frame of the Association of College & Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy is a starting point for developing a political economic approach to IL. The goal of this essay is to recruit Marx and subsequent political economists of communication/information to sketch out a basic political economy of information capitalism. Ultimately, this article seeks to understand the dynamics of information capitalism so that through our teaching we can use this understanding to mount credible, comprehensive challenges to the system itself. Library workers and students need to think and act democratically and collectively in order to address the problems posed by information capitalism. This article will introduce the opportunities presented by the value frame, appraise the strengths and weaknesses of current political economic thinking in IL education, and expand on the concept of political economy and what it offers IL. I will then present a basic theory of information capitalism which includes the concepts of value, commodification, commodity fetish, concentration of ownership, labor, and surveillance. I conclude with recommendations for teaching information capitalism and alternatives, including ways to transform the system individually and collectively.
Information Has Value
The “Information Has Value” frame provides a welcome opening to discuss information capitalism, including the commodification of information, information labor, concentration of ownership, and audience data extraction/surveillance. The value frame is part of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education produced by the ACRL (2016). It evolved from the previous Information Literacy (IL) “Standard” that urged students to “Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally.”
While the Standard shied away from critical analysis of information structures and simply demanded that we act ethically and legally within existing information structures, the value frame prompts us to teach economic dimensions of IL more critically. Although many might not interpret it through a Marxist lens, the new frame recognizes that information “production and dissemination” is influenced by “legal and socioeconomic interests”. It notes that expert researchers should understand that “value may be wielded by powerful interests in ways that marginalize certain voices”, but that this value may also be used by “individuals and organizations to effect change and for civic, economic, social, or personal gains”. While the frame implores researchers to understand their “rights and responsibilities” when participating in information communities, it also recommends that researchers thoughtfully “comply with” and “contest current legal and socioeconomic practices concerning the value of information”. In other words, it not only asks us to understand the rules of information communities, but also to challenge unjust structures. And while it includes some of the tone of the Standard by centering source citation, those of us seeking to understand and transform our current information structures can use the value frame as an entryway. It is not perfect, but it provides an institutionalized opportunity to explore and teach how information is bought, sold, and produced through labor. This political economy approach is rooted in Marxist theory and the analysis of subsequent political economists of communication, which seek to comprehensively understand and challenge information capitalism.
Information Literacy as a Neoliberal project
To this point, librarians have not fully outlined a political economy of information literacy (IL) education, and the majority of the political economic discussion in libraries has been dedicated to showing the ways that information literacy has a neoliberal capitalist orientation. Neoliberal capitalism is a global political project initiated in the mid-1970’s by members of the capitalist class (those with ownership stakes in large businesses and corporations). They had the political backing of powerful government officials and the intellectual backing of Chicago School economists and the Austrian-British economist Friedrich Hayek. They had two primary goals: (1) converting as much of human activity as possible into market-based exchange; (2) transferring wealth to economic elites— and while this second goal was not explicit, when these two goals were in conflict, the second goal was to take precedence (Harvey, 2005). This capitalist class effort was in response to difficulties in making profit. Limits on capital’s ability to realize profit included corporate taxes, the falling rate of profit, and decolonization efforts in the global South that threatened capital’s exploitation of labor and resources from these areas. In many economies across the globe, neoliberals were successful at privatizing or eliminating government-provided social services (e.g. food, health, housing, and education). Many scholars (Smyth et al, 2019; O’Sullivan, 2016) have shown that neoliberalism has influenced universities by turning higher education into a commodity as opposed to a fundamental right. For example, the massive increases in tuition and fees for public institutions, the stripping of tenure through the stark increase in adjunct faculty, etc.
In the last decade, librarians have paid considerable attention to the influence of neoliberalism on information literacy. Both Enright (2012) and Seale (2012) argue that information literacy under neoliberal capitalism aimed to produce perfect neoliberal individuals. These imagined atomized individuals do not think collectively, but instead are able to use information to successfully navigate markets in order to better themselves and to be productive employees. Nicholson (2018) argues that libraries are being swept into the corporatization of the university and that IL is primarily about preparing people to compete in the international market. This results in the corporate culture-like quantitative assessment permeating IL practice. Eisenhower and Smith (2010) are concerned that the higher education classroom in the neoliberal era is too commodified and entrenched in social and economic hierarchies to effectively challenge capitalism. They are even skeptical that librarians can use critical pedagogy without our efforts being co-opted by the corporate university. Drabinski (2017), in a strategic twist, argues that IL emerged from the context of neoliberalism, but nonetheless provides an opening for librarians. Librarians now have a seat at the curricular table and we can use the opportunity to implement changes that benefit librarians and students in their local contexts. Drabinski’s argument is an example of political economy thinking in that she roots IL in history, but leaves room for struggle and change in the analysis. I hope to build on these arguments, recognizing that IL teaching practices are shaped by a capitalist context, but also recognizing that we can take IL in a direction that challenges information capitalism. That is where a political economic approach to teaching IL enters the picture.
Political Economy for IL
A political economy lens for analyzing information creates many opportunities for teaching librarians and students alike. Some define political economy simply as the relationship between democracy (how decisions are made about fundamental aspects of our daily lives) and the economy (how we sustain and reproduce ourselves materially) (McChesney, 2013). A central question in political economy is: Who has decision-making power and control over the production and dissemination of the materials humans need to sustain daily life?
A political economy approach to information undoes the ideological damage wrought by mainstream economics. Mainstream economics attempted to naturalize the laws of capitalism as though they are universal truths and the only way to conduct economic activity, as if capitalist economics were a natural science (Mosco, 2009). This approach to economics forecloses the possibility for everyday non-elite people to change the structure of the economy to be more just. Political economy has been around much longer than the modern discipline of economics. It is a long-standing intellectual tradition that maintains that the way in which humans provide life’s necessities is not natural or inevitable, but is something that can be altered through political struggle.
Mosco (2009) describes four central features of a political economy analysis. (1) A commitment to history. Library workers’ economic analysis should understand the way in which historical transformation and social change occurs. In Marx’s view, history is shaped by class struggle or the conflict over the fruits of human labor in any given society. For example, in our capitalist society, history is shaped by the conflict between those who own the means of production (capitalist class) and those of us who have to sell our labor for a living (working class). (2) The social totality. Rejecting the fragmentation of political and social realities, political economy reveals the big picture of our social and economic life. In other words, political economy asks: “how are power and wealth related and how are these in turn connected to cultural and social life” (p.4)? (3) Moral philosophy. Political economy is concerned with the underlying values and beliefs that are emphasized in economic systems (e.g. self-interest, collective well-being, or liberation from exploitation, etc.). (4) Social praxis. This is the unity between thought/theory and action. Political economy theorizes our current world and possible future worlds and helps us do the work of moving towards those worlds.
Additionally, a political economy of information enables us to understand the material basis for information production and dissemination. People make money by commodifying information which in turn consolidates power into elites’ hands. The political economy of information unveils how information producers are exploited for the profit of a few. In this sense, it helps us sharpen our identification of elites with concentrated power. This is particularly useful when the current popular discourse describes a wide range of people as “liberal elites” (e.g. academics, college students, media workers, etc.), which muddies the collective understanding of who is elite. Political economy exposes the problems of commodifying information and identifies trends across multiple information markets like textbook, scholarly communication, and news media markets. It reveals similarities and contrasts between information markets and other kinds of commodity markets that library workers can use to, among other things, connect broader anti-capitalist struggles to anti-information capitalist struggles.
Finally, a political economy of information capitalism sparks our imagination around avenues for resistance. Since information capitalism is the dominant system, and has complex defense mechanisms, we need to devise comprehensive ways to push back against co-optation of our creative capacities. Using the social praxis described above, how can teaching librarians work with our students to challenge information capitalism in impactful ways?
Teaching Economic Dimensions of IL: Toward More than Source Evaluation
There are several promising attempts within the library literature to think about information literacy through an economic lens, but these largely emphasize individual solutions like source evaluation. Some scholar-practitioners have applied critical media literacy (CML) to teaching information literacy in ways that work to help students think analytically about media production. CML is a pedagogical framework for a variety of educational contexts and age ranges, that comes out of cultural studies (Bussell 2018). CML focuses on teaching students how to critically read and understand the media as well as participate in alternative media production. Brayton and Casey (2019) combine CML and IL to teach their credit course. In this method, they have students identify ideology and propaganda in news sources. They also have students reflect on the capitalist paradigm by asking questions about info commodification such as: should information even be sold? Lastly, they have students reflect on collective intelligence by having them encounter Wikipedia.
Hilary Bussell (2018) also uses CML to support IL teaching in a credit context. She applies the CML framework to the value frame because it provides an opportunity to discuss the socioeconomic and cultural underpinnings of information. Bussell’s approach emphasizes understanding how meaning is made through news production and includes a component on media ownership and structure. Bussell’s CML teaching practice critically culminates in a project in which students make their own media, an empowering way to have students engage with the issues addressed by CML.
Haggerty and Scott (2019) use media and information production to teach the legal dimensions of current information economics. In their chapter on teaching CopyLeft in credit courses, they discuss the way in which copyright was originally designed to spur creativity and was much more limited than the copyright policies we have today. Breaking from its origins, copyright has evolved to primarily benefit corporations, which actually dissuades creativity (McChesney 2013). In their view, it is important to teach the limitations of copyright and to enlighten students about alternatives like CopyLeft which is defined as: “a movement responding to the constraints of traditional copyright by allowing the licensed work to be used, modified, and distributed as determined by the work’s creator” (Haggerty and Scott, p. 253). Like other librarian scholars discussed earlier, they advocate student production of sources to teach the value of information.
These additions to the conversation are helpful, but they also present certain limitations. Their strength is in the interpretive and ideological side of the information economy. In order for students to understand the dynamics of information capitalism we have to provide them with a theory that helps them interpret the system across multiple sites. The narrow focus of CopyLeft and CML cannot do this alone. They also do not center capitalism, which weakens their analysis of the system of source production. This article seeks to build a more comprehensive approach. Focusing on capitalism is necessary for improving our understanding of ideology and interpretation. However, despite these shortcomings, the teaching activities presented by these authors fit well into a broader political economic approach and should be consulted going forward.
Char Booth (2014) begins to address this more comprehensive picture under the banner of information privilege. Their concept is very influential. So much so that it appears in the official Information Has Value Frame under the dispositions: “Learners who are developing their information literate abilities…are inclined to examine their own information privilege.” Information privilege is the notion that people have different access to information sources based on their position in society and institutional affiliations. For example, students at an institution of higher education have temporary privileged access to proprietary databases and the thousands of scholarly journal articles that they contain. Students might not notice this privilege until they get out of school and experience various paywalls when attempting to access sources. Part of teaching the concept of information privilege is uncovering these underlying issues and injustices. Booth also hopes to encourage more open forms of information creation, critique of profit motives (although they do not elaborate on this in their original blog post) and to examine personal and institutional privilege. They have students think about the profit drivers beneath paywalls, the value of the openness of publications, and how to help those without information privilege circumvent strict licensing agreements.
In a talk for OCLC, Booth (2017) presents an even more comprehensive view of information privilege. They connect fighting white nationalism, advocating for higher wages for workers, eliminating overdue fees, and food and housing insecurity all to paywalls. Booth also points to attempts by for-profit companies to co-opt the open access movement. They make mention of collective action in supporting the efforts to challenge information privilege by fighting for information justice. Booth’s work pushes us towards a political economy analysis of information and I want to build from their information privilege concept towards a more comprehensive understanding of information capitalism. I suggest that we supplement the term information privilege with the term information capitalism because, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, the concept of privilege without an analysis of capitalism muddies the overall picture of the political world. It obscures our ability to identify the elites and those who have power in a capitalist society, i.e. the capitalist class (Taylor, 2017). This is not to say that privilege does not exist across or within classes, because it certainly does, but the phrase tends to focus on individuals who are not necessarily the owners of the means of information production and distribution, but are granted privileges by those owners. The process of granting privileges to certain groups is an essential capitalist strategy for maintaining power and avoiding a change in the overall social and economic structure. While individual students certainly have power, the vast majority are not members of the capitalist class and do not own the databases to which they have access. They are merely granted temporary access with their institutional affiliation. An information capitalism approach may alienate some students who are part of the capitalist class, or who strongly identify with this class. However, this approach gives members of these groups the opportunity to examine the issue structurally so they may see how inequality is produced. It is possible for members of this class to become allies of working class struggles. An example of this is Resource Generation, an organization that helps people who have inherited wealth funnel that wealth towards grassroots movements. This structural, information capitalism approach opens up collective inquiry and action as opposed to a focus on information privilege which emphasizes individual inquiry.
Foundations of Information Capitalism
The current dominant global economic system is capitalism, a system that also dominates the production and distribution of information. Capitalism is complex, but we can most simply define it as an economic system that includes strong private property protections, private ownership of the means of production, and a strong emphasis on markets for the distribution of goods and selling of one’s labor. I use the term information capitalism to describe our information economy because it largely fits into capitalist parameters. The fundamentals of capitalism apply to information capitalism and information markets in many ways, but information capitalism includes some complexities that require further exploration. Key areas of focus are commodification of information, ownership, labor, and audience data extraction and surveillance.
The IL frame states that information has value, but how does the political economy tradition define value? When defining value, Marx is a fruitful starting place because value is a concept he spent a great deal of time and care developing. The Marxian political economy tradition is central because his project sought to describe and disrupt capitalism and this inquiry is seeking to understand and challenge capitalist information relations. Keep in mind, Marx dedicated much of his work to describing capitalism from the inside, so he did not intend for his categories of value and beyond to be universal truths. Instead, they are descriptions of the way that each concept works within capitalism. These concepts, like value and labor, can exist outside of capitalism, but they would take a different form (Henderson, 2013).
In his enduringly influential work Capital, Marx (1990) began his inquiry into value, and capital itself, by examining the most basic unit of the system: a single commodity. Commodities are goods that are produced for sale on markets. They may seem simple, but when examined closely, they have many sides: use-values, exchange-values, and values.
First, value is a foundational dimension of a commodity. To Marx, value is a socially constructed category, because the value of commodities is in their relationships with one another and the people that produce and desire them. Value in capitalism is contingent on labor and social relations in complex ways. Therefore labor is a central category for Marx, which we will explore further below.
Second, commodities have use-values or something that makes it useful to someone. For example, a toothbrush is useful for keeping one’s teeth clean, avoiding cavities, and controlling breath odor. An information-based example would be a highly-cited scientific scholarly article published by Elsevier. The article is useful because it provides unique insights on a scientifically important topic. All commodities have a use-value because if they cease to have a use-value then they are no longer commodities and are no longer available on the market.
Finally, the last dimension of the commodity is the exchange-value. This is essentially the price that a producer can obtain by selling the commodity. A toothbrush might sell for something like $2-10 U.S. dollars. The highly-cited scientific scholarly article published by Elsevier might sell for something like $30-50. In this way, all commodities are exchangeable through money. If something is not exchangeable for money it ceases to be a commodity on the market.
Ownership and Exploitation
Most basically, we can delineate two major categories in capitalism: (1) those who own the means of production (or communication) and (2) those who do not. The non-owners or the working class tend to be what Marx calls “doubly free”: “Freed” from owning the means of production, and “free” to sell their labor as the only way to sustain their lives. This is often under coercive and exploitative conditions. The owners purchase workers’ labor in order to keep their profits flowing, which helps them reproduce themselves in their role as owners. There are owners of the toothbrush factory and then there are the workers who make the toothbrushes. There are owners of publishers like Elsevier and there are (paid and unpaid) workers like copy editors and scholars who produce the published content.
Owners exploit labor by paying workers less than what they produce in value. This is called surplus value or profit, which is one of the primary subjects of class struggle. Since profits are created on the backs of productive workers, they are alienated from the products of their labor. This is central to the productive function of capitalism or how it is ever expanding. People always get paid less than they are worth. This coincides with outright theft, primitive accumulation, or accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2005), which is how “free laborers” came into to being. Examples of this are slavery and the outright theft of land from Native Americans. This also coincides with gendered reproductive labor that women traditionally do: activities like housework in factory-worker homes in which women did not get direct remuneration. A more just vision of political economy calls for democratic control and ownership over the surplus value and labor conditions.
To be clear, capitalist exploitation is deeply intertwined with racism and patriarchy. Cedric Robinson (1980), who popularized the term racial capitalism, argued convincingly that capitalism always required racial differentiation and exploitation to function. Silvia Federici (2012) and others prove the same for gendered exploitation. The primary manifestations of racial and gender differentiation in capitalism are the production of racist and sexist ideologies, differentiated work arrangements across racial and gender identities, and disparities in the flow of material resources, i.e. varying degrees of exploitation. Capitalists exploit these socially produced hierarchies in order to drive wages down and control workers. This uneven exploitation is evident in academia where women and people of color are rendered more vulnerable to the exploitative scholarly publishing process. It is difficult to take risks by publishing outside of the mainstream commodified journals when you are already under scrutiny based on marginalized identities. In this sense, being anti-capitalist also requires being anti-racist and anti-patriarchal.
Another concept from Marx is the commodity fetish. Capitalism fetishizes commodities in the circulation process by obscuring the social relations (hierarchies) involved in producing a commodity across space and time. We don’t see the factory conditions, how much the workers are paid, or the profits made by the owners of the toothbrush company when we purchase a toothbrush. We don’t see the struggle or ease through which the author was able to write their scientific scholarly article. Nor do we see their paycheck, working/living conditions, and the profits Elsevier makes when they sell the article. The commodity fetish also makes the process of exchange appear as though it creates profit for capitalists instead of the exploitation of workers. This false notion allows capitalists to claim to be the creators of profit because they circulate commodities. Instead, workers created the surplus-value and profit, and are paid less than what they produced, if at all. They also have no democratic say over the fruits of their labor.
The Cycle of a Scholarly Journal Article Commodity
Commodified information has a similar cycle to other commodity forms, with some variations. As a transition to examining the peculiarities of information capitalism, take the commodity cycle of a scholarly journal article as an example. This is a process that many library workers are familiar with, but its perniciousness becomes more clear in the context of examining information capitalism. A scientist, who is employed at a public university in the United States, wants to share their findings from a study they conducted. They write a scientific paper and send it to a top journal in their field. The journal editor accepts the submission, sends it out to several peer-reviewers, collects their feedback, and returns it to the scientist for changes. After they make changes, the scientist resubmits the paper and it goes through a final editing process. The journal is published by Elsevier and Elsevier provides excellent editing for this particular journal. The scientist approves of the edits and signs their copyright over to Elsevier to circulate the article. Elsevier then sells the article through database package subscriptions or through online article purchases by non-institutionally affiliated individuals. The scientist receives no remuneration for the sale and distribution of their work. Instead, they may receive accolades from their colleagues, credit towards tenure, or the social satisfaction of sharing their research with the scientific community.
Elsevier makes unparalleled profits off the sale of the scientists’ (and other scholars’) work. Many scholars may condone this practice because they feel as though Elsevier and other companies provide them with a service, but a growing number of faculty are dissatisfied and want to see their work shared more equitably (McKenzie, 2019). Again, this process makes scholars with precarious work arrangements and marginalized identities more vulnerable since they will likely be pressured to publish as much as they can in the most prestigious journals possible. These scholars have very little power and are easily exploited in these scenarios.
How did we arrive at a situation in which scholars gift their intellectual production to a massive corporation with no monetary compensation? In brief, the answer to this question is found in the power dynamics of scholarly publishing over the last 30-70 years (Young, 2009). There was more competition in publishing at the beginning of this period, but the unique qualities of journals caused prices to rise at a high rate year after year. This became unsustainable for library budgets and major companies like Elsevier started to claim that they could save libraries money by switching to digital publishing and selling libraries large packages of bundled journals. Their promises of savings never came to fruition and instead prices continued to rise while competition shrank as major publishers bought up smaller publishers and scholarly associations. This is a common story in information markets and the following exploration of the peculiarities of information capitalism help explain the construction and vulnerabilities of this commodity cycle.
Commodification of Information, Concentration, and Oligopoly
The commodification of information may seem mundane and natural, but when examined closely the process presents many political economy problems. Information is a “peculiar” commodity in that it does not get used up during its consumption. This is sometimes called a non-rival or non-excludable good. Non-rival goods are different from most commodities, which are exhausted in their consumption. For example, a toothbrush has a fairly short life, or at least that’s what my dentist says. In contrast, information remains usable after it is consumed and more than one person can consume the same information simultaneously. The contents of our scientific scholarly journal article remain after a patron reads them. Furthermore, information of this sort is extremely inexpensively copied, especially in the internet era. In fact, some have called the internet “the largest copy machine” (Kelly, 2008). But abundant goods do not have high exchange values, therefore information capitalists have to develop an artificial scarcity in information markets in order to increase exchange values. Copyright laws and paywalls are erected around all types of digital information. As library workers and allies continue to build a politics of anti-information-capitalism, we need to know that information is an abundant resource. For examples of information abundance we can look to anti-information-commodification projects like Wikipedia, OER, and free alternative news media.
When information is commodified and sold on markets, this produces powerful ownership concentrations. Political economists of information have documented the tendency for information markets to produce monopolies and oligopolies (Mosco, 2009; Fuchs, 2015; Hardy, 2014). This type of concentration is endemic to information markets. Currently, it is observable in textbook, scholarly communication, and news media markets.
In scholarly communication, the percentage of publications published by the top 5 publishers increased dramatically over the last 30 years in the social sciences. For example, The top 5 publishers published 10% of psychology publications in 1953 and that number steadily grew to over 70% in 2014 (Larivière et al, 2015).
80% of total textbook sales in 2016 went to 5 companies (Senack and Donoghue, 2016). The top 3 companies are currently Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill. In 2018, according to their respective annual reports, these three companies controlled a combined 68% of the higher education textbook market with Pearson at 36%, McGraw-Hill at 21%, and Cengage at 11%. Furthermore, in 2019 McGraw-Hill and Cengage embarked on a bid to merge their two companies and further concentrate ownership in the market. Two of the major problems associated with this concentration are the stark increase in textbook prices and the limited representation of people of color and women as both authors and subjects.
And lastly, there is concentration across print news and broadcast media. In the UK, for example, the top three newspaper companies controlled 68.3% of the market in 2013 (Hardy, 2014, p. 88), a trend which was stable for over ten years. A similar scenario exists in the U.S. (Abernathy, 2016). While these three examples are not exhaustive, they demonstrate that information markets have a consistent feature of ownership concentration.
This tendency exists in information markets for several reasons. First, markets tend toward concentration of ownership as Marx observed, but info markets are particularly vulnerable because media is a public good and, in order to commodify it, a significant amount of legal and social effort must go into building the infrastructure that prevents copying and distributing it freely. For this reason, any market advantage is crucial because power players get to set the parameters that ensure their survival in the market (Garnham, 2000). Also, when a company gets a majority of advertising market shares, they can use the power of advertising to direct more traffic to themselves. This makes it very difficult for new companies to enter into competition. The barriers to entry are vast. (Herman and Chomsky, 1994)
The ramifications of such an oligopolistic system are severe. Political economy of communication scholar Christian Fuchs (2016) provides a non-exhaustive outline of the consequences of market concentration which is worth quoting at length:
- Ideological power: Corporations that produce or organise content have the power to provide material that aims to influence what people consider as correct and valuable views of reality and as truth. Corporate monopolies hence have an ideological function; they can potentially lead to the simplification of complex realities.
- Labour standards: Monopoly corporations can set low Labour standards (especially concerning wages) in their industry sector.
- Political power: In capitalism, money is entangled with political power; hence monopolies enable huge political influence of a small group of people.
- Control of prices: Monopolies have the economic power to control prices of goods and services.
- Control of technological standards: Monopolies have the power to define and control technological standards.
- Dependency of customers: controlling the power to define technological standards also means that the need of customers to buy evermore media technologies in order to remain up to date can be generated. Hence a potential result is an increasing dependency on commodities produced by one corporation and increasing monopoly profits.
- Economic centralization: Monopoly capital deprives others of economic opportunities.
- Quality: A monopolist might care less about quality because there are no alternatives to choose from for consumers.
- Consumer surveillance and censorship: If content and applications are monopolized—that is, most users have to rely on certain products of single media companies—operations of surveillance (i.e., monitoring, statistically evaluating, and recording audience and user behaviour, which content they create and consume, and how and what they communicate) and censorship can be carried out easier and more completely than in the case of several competing companies. This concerns especially communication technologies, such as phones and the Internet. (p. 320)
Noble (2018) additionally demonstrates that information oligopolies can have devastating results for cultural content and reproduce racialized and sexist stereotypes (i.e. racist search results in Google). Also, in her exploration of the proliferation of fake news and disinformation, Cooke (2018) describes the ways in which media concentration over the last several decades led to the weakening of information vetting practices and altered the construction of truth. For these reasons, the politics of anti-capitalist library workers includes challenging the commodification of information, the selling of information on markets, and its subsequent concentration of power into a few hands.
Labor and Exploitation
Labor and exploitation are crucial starting places for teaching students about information capitalism because they are components with which students will likely relate. There are two primary forms of exploited labor in information capitalism: waged labor and unpaid prosumer (someone who is simultaneously a producer and consumer) labor. Waged laborers have an arrangement that resembles that of traditional factory workers. They produce a product for a wage, but the owner pays them less than the worth of what they produce. The boss appropriates the surplus profit. There are laborers in this category that work across the range of jobs available in the information capitalist job market. For example, there are miners in regions of Africa who extract minerals that are essential for modern computing (coltan, cobalt, etc). Without them, many of our mainstream information technologies like cellphones and computers would not function. There is extensive documentation showing that these workers are super-exploited (Exposed, 2016). There are also programmers that work for companies like Amazon and Facebook who make well over $100K per year and have a relatively privileged lifestyle. Despite their relative privilege, these workers are paid less than the amount of value that they produce and are by definition exploited. Tech companies appropriate the surplus profit these workers produce through software development.
Students might particularly see themselves in the second category of unpaid prosumer laborers. This is the everyday social media user or even cell phone owner. People who through using a particular app or platform produce value without receiving payment. For example, Facebook users do not get paid, but if all users decided to stop using the platform, the company would be unable to make money. Some scholars point to the similarity between this labor relationship and Marxist feminist critiques of gendered labor (Terranova, 2000). In industrial-era gendered labor arrangements, women performed the daily tasks of taking care of men so that they could fill the factories and produce commodities. This is called reproductive labor. Their care work was not paid, but was essential for producing value. While there is a qualitative difference between the experiences of reproductive work in these two eras, the industrial era being associated with hard physical labor and the facebook era being associated with entertainment/leisure, the arrangement is comparable. Both groups were/are essential to the process of producing profit through social interaction and care, and both did/do not get directly paid for their work.
The prosumer arrangement raises questions about alternative forms of value, since value is created through everyday activities of everyday people. Here, the autonomist Marxist tradition argues that value is created through human social relations, highlighting one of Marx’s concepts outlined in the Grundrisse: the general intellect. This is the notion that human knowledge is collective and there are contradictions involved in privatizing it. The value created through human social relations should be shared with all! However, in capitalism, the general intelligence is easily integrated into the capitalist ownership structure. The task at hand is to revolutionize those relations so that the fruits of our labor can be shared. (Terranova, 2000; Hardt and Negri, 2000)
Technology companies’ data collection and surveillance practices are now a powerful force in information capitalism, an additionally relatable issue for students. In order to understand the origins of tech surveillance we can go back to print news media that was dependent on ad revenue. To sell ad space and compete in the news market, a news media company needed to know as much as possible about its readers. The more a company knows about a user group, the more they can target them with ads that are geared towards them. In the internet age this evolved to emphasize gathering data on individual users as opposed to groups in interfaces like Google and Facebook, etc. in order to target individuals for ads. Mosco (2009) calls this process of commodifying personal information, which is spurred by the necessities of market competition, immanent commodification.
Further, the competition and the level of data gathered by companies have morphed into what Zuboff (2019) calls surveillance capitalism, which is an economy that relies on the secret production of data profiles of individuals to urge them to act in certain ways. This enables tech companies and other elites to manipulate behavior in massive and alarming ways. One example of this was the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which a political firm accessed comprehensive data on 87 million Facebook users in order to manipulate their vote in the 2016 U.S. election. Sarah Lamdan’s (2019) work demonstrates that surveillance capitalist logic applies to library resources as well. For example, Thomas Reuters sells user data to United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This form of information capitalism raises an alarm about human autonomy as companies and governments can have unprecedented sway over individuals. And for this reason, and reasons raised above, library workers need to undermine information capitalism.
Moving Forward in the IL Classroom and Beyond
There are two primary components of an anti-information capitalism pedagogy that library workers can use moving forward. First, teaching about information capitalism, and second, organizing against information capitalism for what Char Booth calls information justice. An information capitalism IL curriculum should focus on three categories outlined above. These are (1) the commodification of information, (2) information labor, and (3) surveillance and privacy. A critical pedagogy rooted in student experience and liberation compliments each of these areas. Students have myriad experiences with these areas. They have paid for expensive textbooks and hit paywalls for scholarly articles; they produce value through social media and databases search activity; and they have heard about personal data surveillance or experienced intrusive advertising. These common experiences make it easy to spark passionate student-centered conversations in the IL classroom.
The energy, passion, and outrage generated by conversations about the harms of information capitalism can be directed towards organizing for information justice. In this sense, our IL teaching expands beyond the walls of the literal classroom. Library workers can pivot from conversations in which students sharpen their analysis of information economy to action that challenges the system. This action should be collective and organized. In credit-bearing classes, for example, students can work together on a campaign raising awareness of corporate media bias and ways to support alternative media. In one-shot instruction contexts, teaching librarians can channel righteous student anger about the high costs of textbooks towards grassroots campus OER initiatives. Or, make room for students to direct the course of action. What do they think would be the most impactful ways to redress the harms of information capitalism and transform the system? Additionally, library workers should continue to build their own ongoing anti-information capitalism organizing efforts. The most important organizing effort is for library workers to support the organization (union and otherwise) of information laborers of all types. Organized workers can use their power to oppose the commodification of information and support alternatives, and pressure surveillance capitalists to stop extracting personal data. There is a wide variety of approaches to challenging information capitalism, but social praxis is central to any approach. Engaging in theorizing the information economy landscape, taking action to change the unequal power relations, reflecting on the action, and repeating the process.
The current form of information capitalism presents a range of significant problems, but it would be too bleak to only explore the problems without presenting alternatives and potential avenues for resistance. Part of the pedagogy for information capitalism is to provide space for students to work towards transforming the system. In order to transform the system we can ask ourselves the question that the organizing collective Movement Generation asks as they develop strategy: “how can we come up with alternatives that starve the system?” (Brown and Brown, 2019). This first starts by understanding the system in order to avoid inadvertently reinforcing it in our acts of rebellion. One method for resistance is the individual strategy of evaluation. Knowing the possibility of financial conflicts of interest that information producers have can help analyze the claims made by different outlets. How do the financial relationships of news organizations impact their coverage of certain topics? For example, how does the advertising support of big oil companies impact coverage of the climate crisis? Students can use their understanding of information capitalism as well as these questions to guide their choice of sources for class assignments and other needs.
However, political economy approaches ask us to go beyond this narrow individual approach to think systemically and act collectively. Again, political economy imagines that our economic arrangements are not natural or permanent, but constructed and changeable based on political organizing. This organizing should come from everyday people, workers (paid and unpaid) and our allies, and should challenge the social relations of information capitalism. In other words, organizing should move towards building power for the people who do the work and create the value, not economic elites or information capitalists. It means tearing down paywalls that block the flow of information that was created by the general intellect.
Some alternatives that have the potential to build power and challenge information capitalism are Open Education (OE), open access publishing, and alternative media. In the OE movement, educators who believe that education is a human right realized that commodified textbooks are a barrier or burden to accessing education for many students. While the movement is producing real challenges for the textbook oligopoly, there are still debates about whether textbook commodities are appropriate, even when they have OE components. These decisions will be made in the coming years and educators with a political economic analysis should weigh in on this debate. But when working with students to challenge information capitalist social relations, the following questions are starting places: How can students and educators partner to support OE, open access publishing, collectively generated knowledge like Wikipedia, and alternative media? How can they partner to challenge social media data extraction and surveillance with campaigns like Wages for Facebook? Government regulation of tech company products, including racist search engine results is another option that Noble proposed (2018). Given the fact that governments have largely been captured by capitalist interests, can they be potential allies in anti-information capitalism struggles? What forums can we use to urge governments to regulate extractive tech companies, if any? Working with students on these questions will assuredly produce exciting projects!
Writing this article was more of a collective than an individual project and I would like to acknowledge the incredible group of people that supported me in writing and publishing it. Romel Espinel and Ian Beilin’s formal peer-reviews were essential to polishing and clarifying my ideas. Thank you to Ryan Randall for his expert editorial guidance throughout the process. Several colleagues helped me develop and teach with the framework presented in this article. Thank you to Caitlan Maxwell, Katy Dichter, Lynn Kanne, the librarians at UW Bothell and Cascadia college and the librarians at Seattle Central College. And thank you to Christian Anderson, Emily Drabinski, Becca Meredith, Ben Ellenwood, and Vincent Mosco for providing feedback on earlier drafts of the paper.
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