The Producer/Consumer Dichotomy and Knowledge as Commodity

By kiemma

Isabel Rechberg and Jawad Syed’s paper “Ethical issues in knowledge management: conflict of knowledge ownership” highlights some important issues surrounding knowledge production and management within the corporate sphere. However, I wish they had expanded upon this topic further by asking what larger issues arise when we treat knowledge as a commodity? What are the potentials for violence in this system? Finally, I ask how approaching this issue from a library and information studies perspective can help to reframe the concepts of knowledge production, management, and consumption.

Rechberg and Syed’s paper emphasizes “the need for a moral contract of KM between organizations and individuals that is built on the ethical constructs of trust, fairness and justice, so that individuals are acknowledged as legitimate and foremost owners of knowledge, and are willing to participate in KM and enhance its effectiveness” (Rechberg and Syed, 2013). While I agree that it is important to protect the intellectual property of employees, I believe that the protection of the individual is paramount, and should not merely be a stepping-stone to a more streamlined knowledge production team for the company. It seems for Rechberg and Syed, the end goal is to provide a ‘safe space’ for knowledge production within the capitalist system in order to encourage “individuals to willingly participate in knowledge processes” (Rechberg and Syed, 2013). I would have loved to see Rechberg and Syed take their arguments one step further and discuss the ways that treating knowledge as a commodity alienates both producers and consumers, and is inherently detrimental to the knowledge production process. As the knowledge economy becomes further entrenched in the realm of Web-based production, the potential for exploitation is magnified. I look to Mechanical Turk as a prime example of this phenomenon.

Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace, was established in 2005 with the goal of matching companies with individuals who bid on jobs that can only be completed by humans. Moshe Marvit’s article in The Nation, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine”, cites tasks such as detecting biases in an article, recognizing irony, and reading text out of photographs (Marvit, 2014). While on the surface this digital marketplace seemed like a perfect platform for matching companies with willing employees, it has actually become something of an Internet sweatshop, creating an unregulated labor market that is novel even within Western capitalist history. As Marx states:

            Even if the system of working remains the same, the simultaneous employment of a large number of labourers brings about a total change in the material conditions of the labour process. Buildings in which many are at work…which serve, simultaneously or otherwise, the purpose of many labourers, are now consumed in common. (Marx, 1867).

The Internet as a whole, and Mechanical Turk specifically, is the 21st century version of the “buildings in which many are at work” that Marx speaks of, and a “total change in the material conditions of the labour process” has been the result. Given the fact that Mechanical Turk is centered on people performing tasks that computers cannot, I argue that this labor market is not just exploiting the labor of employees, but also their knowledge, both tacit and explicit. Mechanical Turk gives us a glimpse of a digital work environment centered on non-negotiable contracts, fierce competition, and free from minimum wage regulation, where individuals’ labor and knowledge are both exploited to frightening degrees. The question, then, is where do librarians fit into this violent new labor market? Is it possible to return a degree of agency to the knowledge production/consumption process?

Library and information professionals such as Christine Pawley have grappled with the complex relationship between production and consumption and have, in my opinion, crafted some solutions that are applicable to the Web-based knowledge market. Pawley’s “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling” raises some important points regarding issues with the concept of information literacy as a whole, while also touching on the need to reframe the concepts of information production and consumption. Pawley discusses the need to develop “information literacy practices that situate all information users—not just scholars—at the center of processes of information production and recontextualization, thus hybridizing the identity of consumer-as-producer and producer-as-consumer” (Pawley, 2003). Pawley points to the need to reframe knowledge and information production/consumption not as dichotomous, but as one single, inextricably linked process. When we begin to recognize, as Pawley discusses, the idea of information as a process, not merely an item to be created by some and consumed by others, we can move information out of the realm of commodity. By participating in the both the information production and consumption processes, individuals are no longer subjected to the alienating effects of knowledge as commodity. As information and library professionals help to reframe this understanding of knowledge as an active process, individuals will be presented with the opportunity to escape the production/consumption dichotomy and the associated commodification of the “product”. It is in this way that I believe library and information studies can help to combat the negative aspects of knowledge production, management, and consumption in the corporate environment, and reintroduce a sense of agency to the process.



Marvit, Moshe. “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine.” The Nation. The Nation Mag., 5 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

Marx, Karl. “Capital: An Analysis of Capitalist Production.” Ed. Julian Borchardt. Capital. Ed. Max Eastman. New York: Random House, 1959. 64-65. Print.

Pawley, Christine. “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 73.4 (2003): 422-448. Digital.

Rechberg, Isabel, and Jawad Syed. “Ethical issues in knowledge management: conflict of knowledge ownership.” Journal of Knowledge Management 17.6 (2013): 828-840. Digital.

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