Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Information as a Product

At one time life's essentials were limited to shelter, fuel and food. But new technologies are created and some have become essentials.  Sewage systems and electrical power have become, in relatively recent times, essentials. And, for the last 50 years or so, personal transport and the fuel to run it has too. 

The successful new technologies tend to become products or commodities and once something has become commodified capitalism takes over. It is the general goal of capitalism to maximise the market for a product. Suppliers want to roll their product out to the widest possible customer base. So it is ideal if a new product becomes an essential. 

As new products are introduced they tend to find favour with the wealthy first and then expand into less affluent markets. Then, if the product changes the way large sectors of the population live it eventually becomes an essential. Just since 1950, in rural areas in England, domestic electricity changed from being the privilege of the wealthy to an absolute essential of life. A civilised society without electricity has become, in just 60 years, inconceivable.

Given the preponderance of commodities that are essentials yet are also damaging to health and environment (largely but not exclusively petroleum fuelled products) it’s reassuring to see a new product emerging that is not of itself environmentally damaging. Their existence gives opportunities for concentrations of capital, which wield power and influence, to be invested in areas that are not environmentally damaging. 

So what is this new commodity? There is a product that has existed since the beginnings of human written language but only within very recent times has it become a commodity. This product - information - derives from a remarkable attribute of humans, the ability to create and manipulate written language. And written language is the earliest example of a disruptive technology.  

It’s believed that writing started about 6000 years ago, at the beginning of the Bronze age, and this is probably no coincidence, writing became an enabling technology for other technologies.  But for most of those 6000 years writing has been a specialised skill and the information preserved and transmitted through writing was limited. Yet despite this information in the form of written works was soon recognised as having a value. The Great Library of Alexander, as well as being a huge receptacle of knowledge, was a considerable financial investment. But the investment paid dividends and the library profited by selling copies of the works  that it preserved.

Copying the library’s texts was limited by the availability of writing materials. The development of papyrus (which superseded clay and stone), parchment  and eventually wood-pulp paper led to a decline in the cost of writing. But, in antiquity, all copying was done by hand and copies remained relatively expensive. A ‘Scriptorium’, where a skilled workforce painstakingly and laboriously hand copied texts, and sometimes translated them, is a remarkable factory. But the economics kept books (and knowledge) in short supply. And, as depicted in Emburto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, such information as did exist could be kept out of circulation if authority deemed it so.

The situation changed with the development, in 1440, of the printing press. Written works became more common but printing required capital and it's owners could still be influenced by authorities who could still maintain control of information. 

In Britain the government set up means to restrict the number of newspapers in an effort to make publishing more amenable to control (a tax called stamp duty). In the twentieth century further new medias appeared: radio and television, but these were centralised and expensive and also controllable. The BBC, which started out as a commercial organisation was swiftly nationalised so that the government could keep it in check.  

The new electronic media established itself in the mid 1990s when widespread access to the Internet started. Now almost anyone could become a publisher or broadcaster. (the abundance of information has also served to limit access to information) But it would take a few more engineering developments before effective search engines, smart phones and high speed wireless, cellular networks enabled pure information to become a product. Rather than the book or newspaper being the product. After 6000 years information has entered a new phase and become, once more, a disruptive technology. 

The new technology permits of instant, perfect copying that would have astonished the toiling clerks in a monastic scriptorium. They'd be equally astonished by the quality of automatic language translation. Moreover, the ease of creating new websites has opened the flood gates to information and even the most authoritative regimes struggle to silence all dissenting voices.

The changes  to the way people live and work brought on by the new age of instant universal information are still in progress. But the signs are showing. For the first time in decades private car usage, in certain western countries, is declining. Old public transport technologies are becoming more usable through the use of smart phones. If your are on a business trip or holidaying, Google your destination and have the system find you a way. It’s become much easier to plan a cross country trip when the smartphone can give you alternative busses, trains and uber cabs as you make your journey. Once a rental car was considered an essential on a foreign trip, but now with all the world’s travel timetables accessible, and automatically searchable, the old travel infrastructure, at no cost to itself, just got more usable.

Travel information, wikipedia, music, continuous communications with our loved ones, shopping, and that very hard to quantify utility of how to do it, in fact, all the world of knowledge has meant that pure information has finally made it into the big time. The network providers and phone manufacturers  have given us access to it and companies like Google have organised it for us. The same information that always has existed just became more useful and it has become a real commodity,  sold by the Megabit.  

My relatives in the Yorkshire Dales, who sixty years ago had no domestic electricity, now complain that their internet is not fast enough. This newly commodified version of information is now secured by being both an essential and a product of the market. And while Authority would still like to control the content and flow of information, there is always one thing that Authority must defer to - Authority must always defer to the market.

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