In an interesting new piece, Jim Thatcher, David O'Sullivan and Dillonn Mahmoudi propose that big data functions in the context of capital as “accumulation by dispossession,” which is David Harvey’s term for what Marx called “primitive accumulation,” the process by which capital adds to its wealth by taking goods from others and adding them to the system. Marx: “so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production” (Capital I, 875 [I am using the Penguin edition]). Perhaps the best example of this is the one detailed by Marx: the enclosure movement in England involved the privatization of agricultural common spaces in England, such that it was no longer possible to graze sheep on lands held by the community in common; the result was that a lot of peasants, who ended up with no or inadequate amounts of private property, lost everything of value they had and became “free labor,” forced to sell themselves to the emerging factories. As Marx sums up the process:
“The spoliation of the Church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the state domains, the theft of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of ruthless terrorism, all these things were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital, and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians” (895)
I am very sympathetic to the thesis, and there is something profoundly right about it, insofar as Thatcher et al. rely on the separation of the valued information from the person who produces it. But I also think it needs tweaking, for reasons that emerge in the paper itself: the data trail that a person leaves is generally itself without value, and only becomes valuable when aggregated with a lot of other data. In other words, as I tried to argue a while ago, data is itself without value; it is only when it becomes information that it realizes that value.
It seems to me that the accumulation processes of big data is involved in a much earlier stage, the commodification of data into information itself, which involves both the elevation of exchange value over use value, and the conversion of qualitatively different items of data into commensurable units of information. These are, to an extent, equivalent processes, as Marx notes: “as use values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange values, they can only differ in quantity, and therefore do not contain an atom of use-value” (128). Still, I think it’s worth teasing the two threads apart here.