The value of information

Image: Carlos Cruz-Diez


Excerpt from the “Introduction” of the newly released book

In a work originally published in 1950, Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), considered the “father” of cybernetics, may have been the first to warn that information could not be reduced to merchandise, even though he admitted that this was his fate in capitalist society.[I] In another pioneering work, launched in 1962, the economist Kenneth Arrow (1921-2017) also demonstrated the difficulties that would arise from reducing information to merchandise, arguing that it should be treated as a public resource[ii].

Norbert Wiener and Kenneth Arrow were anticipating, long before the appearance of the internet, the new and serious institutional and political problems linked to the appropriation of the value of information and knowledge, which are situated, we argue, at the heart of the contradictions of capitalism in this XNUMXst century. They also anticipated a major theoretical challenge, since economic theories, both classical and neoclassical, excluded information and knowledge from their formulations, or rather, took them as presupposed elements.

As Rullani said: “Knowledge certainly has use value […] but it does not contain a cost-value that can be used as a reference to determine the exchange value and that functions either as a marginal cost (neoclassical theory) or as a cost of reproduction (Marxist theory). Indeed, the cost of producing knowledge is highly uncertain and, above all, radically different from its cost of reproduction. Once a first unit has been produced, the cost necessary for the reproduction of the other units tends to zero (if knowledge is codified) [...] The exchange value of a commodity whose cost of reproduction is zero inevitably tends to zero”.[iii]

Economists included in the mainstream Theorists recognize the problem, like Joseph Stieglitz (1943-), for whom the information economy becomes the most important theoretical and political novelty of this XNUMXst century, demanding to admit, in neoclassical terms, that information “is imperfect”, it can have “high acquisition costs”, introduces “important asymmetries” that affect the lives of people and companies; for all that, it has a “profound effect on how we think about economics today”.[iv]

On the contrary, economists and other theorists of a Marxist or Marxian tradition, judging by the literature of this vast and diversified field, still do not seem to have paid attention to the subject. Understanding information as a central economic, political and cultural issue, whose understanding, in terms of dialectical and historical materialism, would help us to explain a wide range of problems in today's capitalism, is an agenda that is hardly explored by critical thinkers, less even by politicians and militants.

This is not due to lack of references. One of the very pioneers in examining the growing importance of information in political-economic relations was a Marxist theorist: the Czech sociologist Radovan Richta (1924-1983), in a work originally published in the already distant year of 1969: “Given that information carries of every innovation and intermediate step of every application of science, the development of information belongs to the pillars of the scientific-technical revolution”.[v] Jean Lojkine[vi] will approach the problem of information and the so-called informational revolution in a theoretically even more comprehensive way, in the same vein, by the way, of one of the authors of this book, Marcos Dantas, whose first studies on the subject also date from the 1990s.[vii]

At about the same time, the American Marxist theorist Herbert Schiller (1919-2000) denounced that, under the cloak of neoliberal discourse, a political and economic process of “information privatization” was advancing.[viii] Capital extended its tentacles to areas until then reasonably outside its processes of appropriation and valorization. These areas would be those owned by the State, as they were constituted by resources considered socially common, and gathered and organized an immense mass of data and knowledge about society and its individuals: education, health, income, public management, provision of basic or universal services. etc.

Finally, but not least, we highlight the already extensive contribution of the field of “political economy of information and communication”, strictly speaking a subfield of the area of ​​Social Communication, whose rich production, always critical, unfortunately, however, has little impact. in the other great fields of sociological or economic knowledge, Marxist or not. On the other hand, the field itself prioritizes, in its research, the so-called “media” and other manifestations of cultural industries, delimited as a political-economic sector among many others of the capitalist mode of production in its current configuration.[ix] Our hypothesis, on the contrary, is that it is impossible to understand the core of contemporary capitalism without understanding the spectacular informational logic that would determine the other relations of production and appropriation of value of capital-information.

Nowadays, there is no denying that information has been reduced to a commodity and thus uncritically understood by common sense. In the last thirty or forty years, in the capitalist world as a whole, a broad process of privatization of public services has also advanced. Over the last four or five decades, capital has been making information the alpha and omega of its production and consumption relations.

However, when we talk about information, what exactly are we talking about? Any reader of this text should be thinking about the usual, everyday, vulgar or dictionary definitions of information: data, news, something communicated to someone, etc. Maybe I'm not even understanding very well those reservations by Wiener or Arrow pointed out earlier.

Common sense has even penetrated the academic literature, as revealed in the solution given by Manuel Castells, in a mere footnote, in his extensive trilogy on the network society: “For the greater clarity of this book, I think it necessary to give a definition of knowledge and information, even if this intellectually satisfying attitude introduces something arbitrary into the discourse, as social scientists who have already faced the problem know. I have no compelling reason to refine the definition of knowledge given by Daniel Bell (1973: 175): “Knowledge: an organized set of statements about facts and ideas, presenting a reasoned judgment or experimental result that is transmitted to others through some medium. means of communication in some systematic way. Thus, I differentiate knowledge from news and entertainment”. As for information, some well-known authors in the field simply define information as the communication of knowledge (see Machlup 1962: 15). But, as Bell says, this definition of knowledge employed by Machlup seems too broad. Therefore, I would return to the operational definition of information proposed by Porat in his classic work (1977: 2): “Information is data that has been organized and communicated”.[X]

Although, as he admits, these were necessary definitions for the elaboration of the remainder of his broad study, Castells limited himself to assuming the declaredly arbitrary or operational concepts previously established by Daniel Bell, Marc Porat and other economists or sociologists who would have pioneered investigated the theme . Undoubtedly, based on these authors, as it would not be difficult to demonstrate, economic or sociological literature, as well as technological and managerial literature, has almost always adopted the same or similar definitions, as if in fact there were not many other reasons, except to “improve ”, much more to criticize those statements.

Compare the previous passage with this one, taken from the physicist and cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002): “What crosses the cable is not information, but signals. However, when we think about what information is, we believe that we can compress it, process it, shred it. We believe that information can be stored and then retrieved. Consider a library, normally seen as an information storage and retrieval system. This is an error. The library can store books, microfiche, documents, films, photographs, catalogues, but it does not store information. We can walk through a library and no information will be given to us. The only way to get information in a library is to look at its books, microfiche, documents, etc. We could also say that a garage stores and retrieves a transportation system. In both cases, potential vehicles (for transport or for information) would be confused with things they can only do when someone makes them do them. Someone has to do it. They don't do anything.[xi]

While for Bell, Porat or Castells, information or knowledge are “things”, elements or facts available for observation or manipulation by someone, for Von Foerster there will only be information if someone acts to extract it from the facts or elements. Information, here, is found in a relationship, in movement; it is not an object, it is an activity.

In the first case, the definitions seem to emerge at the moment when economics, sociology and related disciplines began to perceive, in society, phenomena, entities or relationships that would refer to information or knowledge. Porat or Bell, faced with these phenomena, suggested decidedly arbitrary definitions based on common sense. The second case is a formulation that was born in the midst of a debate that sought to understand information and, hence, knowledge as an object of scientific knowledge, therefore, epistemological, from whose understanding one could, if necessary, also extract economic or social relationships. sociological. Von Foerster belonged to a nascent scientific research program that sought and succeeded (as we will see in this book) in establishing a scientific definition of information. We assume that this could be the definition that would also be of interest to any Marxian approach to the subject.

In this scientific approach, information, by its nature, cannot really be appropriated as any commodity; it can only be shared. In the exchange of a commodity, ownership of its use-value is effectively transferred to the buyer. If I buy bread at the bakery, that bread is completely mine from the moment I give the baker my money. However, if I communicate something to someone, for example, to the reader of this book, that person starts to enjoy the use value of the text, without my also losing my control over it. He remains “mine” and also becomes “hers”. It is from this foundation that all the other enormous problems related, in current capitalism, to the appropriation of information and knowledge derive, and from there, the increasingly draconian advances in legislation regarding the so-called intellectual property.

As we will see, following Von Foerster, there is no work without information, nor information without work. O information value it is, in this way, the value of work. However, here we are faced with a blind spot in Marxist theory: theorists, even the most recent and current ones, have not yet realized this absolutely essential, even existential, relationship. A noteworthy exception is the Brazilian Álvaro Vieira Pinto (1909-1987), in a monumental treatise, written in the early 1970s, unfortunately only published twenty years after his death.[xii]

This book that we deliver to readers deals with the value of informational work from the concept of value as rigorously scrutinized by Karl Marx. He talks about how capital organizes work to process, register, communicate information in the forms of science, technology, arts, sports, entertainment, and how it acts to appropriate the value of this work. It aims to investigate and discuss the nature of what we call information-capital, this new stage of capitalism proper to capital in the XNUMXst century.

*Marcos Dantas He is a professor at the School of Communication at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of The logic of capital-information (Contraponto).



Marcos Dantas, Denise Moura, Gabriela Raulino and Larissa Ormay.
The value of information: how capital appropriates social work in the age of spectacle and the internet. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2022, 456 pages.



[I] Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950).

[ii] Kenneth Joseph Arrow, “Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Invention”, in National Bureau Committee for Economic Research, The Rate and Direction of Inventive Activity: Economic and Social Factors (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1962).

[iii] Enzo Rullani, “Le capitalisme cognitif: du déjà vu?”, Crowds, no. 2, 2000, p. 89-90, our translation.

[iv] Joseph Stieglitz, “The Contributions of the Economics of Information to the Twentieth Century,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, v. 115, no. 4, Nov. 2000, p. 1.441.

[v] Radovan Richta, Civilization at the crossroads (Mexico, DF/Madrid/Buenos Aires: Siglo Veinteuno Editores, 1971)

[vi] Jean Lojkine, LOJKINE, Jean (1995). the informational revolution (São Paulo, Cortez, 1995).

[vii] Marcos Dantas, “Value-work, value-information”, Transinformation, Campinas, v. 8, no. 1, 1996, p. 55-88; The logic of information-capital: from the fragmentation of monopolies to the monopolization of fragments in a world of global communications (Rio de Janeiro, Counterpoint, 1996); “Capitalism in the age of networks: work, information and value in the cycle of productive communication”, in Helena Maria Martins Lastres and Sarita Albagli, Information and globalization in the age of knowledge (Rio de Janeiro, Campus, 1999).

[viii] Herbert Schiller. Information and the crisis economy (New York, Oxford University Press 1986).

[ix] See, for example: Alain Herscovici, Economy of culture and communication (Victory, FCAA/IFES, 1995); Cesar Bolano, Cultural industry, information and capitalism (São Paulo, HUCITEC/Pólis, 2000); David Hesmondhalgh, The Cultural Industries (2ed, London, Sage, 2007); Francisco Sierra Caballero (irg.), Political economy of communication: theory and methodology (Madrid, Ulepicc, 2021); Janet Wesko, How Hollywood Works (London, Sage, 2003); Nicholas Garnham, Capitalism and communication (London, Sage, 1990); Ramón Zallo, Economy of communication and culture (Madrid, Akal, 1998); Vincent Mosko, The Political Economy of Communication (2nd ed., London, Sage, 2009).

[X] Manuel Castells, the network society (trans. Roneide Venancio Majer, São Paulo, Paz & Terra, 1999), p. 45, note 27.

[xi] Heinz von Foerster, “Epistemology of communication,” in Kathleen Woodward (ed.), The Myths of Information: Technology and Post-Industrial Culture (London, Routledge & Keegan-Paul, 1980), p. 19, our translation.

[xii] Alvaro Vieira Pinto, The concept of technology (Rio de Janeiro, Counterpoint, 2005).

The site the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters. Help us keep this idea going. Click here and find how

See this link for all articles