Information Commodification




Johndon Johnson-Eilola’s article “The Database and the Essay” argues that postmodern definitions of writing have begun to be accepted and popularized by the general public. If we accept the general premise of postmodernism that ideas are formed in context and in social situations and don’t stem from individual genius, we are then faced with the issue of authorship and ownership. Johnson-Eilola points to intellectual property law and the erosion of fair use rights, arguing that language and text has become commodified within a capitalist system, “put into motion…forced to earn its keep by moving incessantly” (203).  This idea of breaking texts into fragmented parts so that they will fit within the avenues of capitalist circulation has quite serious implications for original ownership. When texts are broken into smaller and smaller pieces, allowing for easier commodification, and then continually repurposed into new forms, how can we define authorship and originality? The deconstruction of meaning from a single textual object into an interconnected web of linkage and in-text citation has not created a “communal web of shared experiences,” as Johnson-Eilola claims was originally predicted (204).  What has instead emerged is the commodification of intellect with the continual breaking down and reformulation of texts and ideas, each recombination generating profitable value.

This issue can be viewed in terms of the broader debate over what is writing and what is mere compilation. We generally define writing as involving a creative process that results in the formation of a unique text containing original thought. This is taught in academic settings and grounds most writing pedagogy. However new competing definitions of writing that lean toward postmodernism argue that language is a continual social construction, so is completely arbitrary and that this applies to texts as well. There is a marked shift from thinking of texts as discrete objects to now viewing them as unpredictable, fragmented elements that are constantly reconfigured and reconnected. Johnson-Eilola argues that this shift is important because it “opens a path away from thinking of intellectual property as a work– as a relatively extended, coherent whole– and toward thinking of it as marketable chunks” (209).  By viewing any type of text within these financially geared terms, issues of ownership become problematic. If texts and ideas are continually reformulated, who holds proprietary rights?

Attempts at answering this question have become more urgent and relevant as blogs and linking further complicate the idea of ownership. Traditionally citation and reference within texts is considered necessary and socially valuable and has always been free, but now companies claim that linking within a website destroys their economic model of users moving “top-down” through the site viewing advertisements along the way. If users are linked to a page deep within the site, they miss relevant advertising and the company is not paid. The contrast between the academic argument that information should be free and the economic model claiming that information should circulate and thus earn money can be reduced to the rather difficult issue of information commodity. On one side we have academics arguing that knowledge and texts reside outside of the economic sphere while simultaneously constructing institutions that collect money in exchange for knowledge. And on the other side we have the postmodernists and corporations that fragment and circulate texts, profiting from this continual exchange of information. Though these sides claim to be in constant and bitter debate, their practices are incredibly similar. Does this then de-value the argument? Aren’t both institutions essentially attempting to control the same thing?




4 comments on “Information Commodification

  1. I am going to comment on the meme you begin your blog with. While people might find its message compelling or at least amusing, I have to point out that it’s perpetuating the idea that what is learned in college is information (that a student’s goal is to fill up her bag with as many facts as she can before her four years are up). (I am assuming you’re using the meme ironically.) This clashes with the current thinking on best pedagogical practices, which says that what should be learned in college is the skills and habits of mind to access information and create knowledge.

  2. I would like to echo Collin’s point about the meme, and add that I think it represents how the mainstream public often views education; educators, rather than the mainstream public, often espouse a view of college as a place to develop “habits of mind” and critical thinking, rather than a place to accumulate information to trade in for a degree (and a major that is likely to reap financial rewards). I think the meme points to the ways in which the positions taken up by postmodernists and corporations toward ideas/intellectual property (and thank you for your insights into the ways that postmodernists and corporations are actually in sync here), are quickly becoming mainstream, and coloring the way many students approach higher education. An education is now often framed as something one purchases, and students often act (and are often treated) as consumers. This seems to have especially dire consequences for educators in the liberal arts/humanities fields, as our expertise is not seen as valuable since it cannot be translated into monetary gain. Thank you for the excellent insights in your post.

  3. Great post and intriguing insight. The end of your blog reminds me of Lessig’s TED talk on remix culture and creativity. The talk detailed how landowners wanted compensation for planes flying over their land, even though enforcing such a rule would be impractical, costly, and time-consuming. However, we see YouTube experience a similar predicament in writing — at what point does music/image/video cease being “original” and re-created for something new?

    We also see these attitudes in professors’ requests for a “bibliography” page. In my experience, we need to turn in a bibliography page in order to document every source that may have contributed to my ideas, even if I did not quote or paraphrase that author. While I do believe in some sort of acknowledgement, the commodification of smaller bits of texts just seems like we’re moving towards an impractical and time-consuming practice. However, you do raise an interesting point — no matter how much we may value or devalue citation and crediting others’ works, in the end, somebody wants to make a buck off that writing.

  4. Your discussion brings to light a lot of the questions that I had when reading the pieces on postmodernism. The main issue question/issue that I had with the linking of texts and the idea of fragmented texts, was with originality; is anything original anymore? I liked how you incorporated a traditional definition of writing and composing in your response, because it juxtaposes what is now happening, with the new evolving definition of what it means to compose something.

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