The problem of abundance and the political economy of digital knowledge

A conversation I had recently about the digitalisation of the archive left me thinking back to this section on pg 81-82 of World Without Mind by Franklin Foer:

There have been various stabs at coining a term to capture the dominant role of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. Mark Zuckerberg has called his company a “utility,” perhaps un aware how the term is historically an invitation for invasive regulation. But there’s something to his suggestion. In the industrial age, utilities were infrastructure that the public deemed essential to the functioning of everyday life—electricity and gas, water and sewage. In the end, the country couldn’t function without them, and the government removed these companies from the vicissitudes of the market, leashing them to publicly appointed commissions that set their prices. In the knowledge economy, the essential pieces of infrastructure are intellectual. With the inexhaustible choice made possible by the Internet comes a new imperative—the need for new tools capable of navigating the vastness. The world’s digital trove of knowledge isn’t terribly useful without mechanisms for searching and sorting the ethereal holdings. That’s the trick Amazon—and the other knowledge monopolists—have managed. Amazon didn’t just create the world’s biggest bookstore; it made its store far more usable, far more efficient, than browsing the aisles of a Barnes and Noble or cruising a library’s card catalog. And beyond that, Amazon anticipated your desires, using its storehouse of data to recommend your next purchase, to strongly suggest a course for navigating knowledge. This is the strange essence of the new knowledge monopolies. They don’t actually produce knowledge; they just sift and organize it. We rely on a small handful of companies to provide us with a sense of hierarchy, to identify what we should read and what we should ignore, to pick informational winners and losers. It’s incredible economic and cultural power that they have amassed because of a sudden change in the strange economics of the commodity they traffic in, a change they hastened.

There’s something enticingly simple about this account, framing contemporary knowledge monopolies as successors to the communications monopolies of the past, inviting comparable modes of regulation.

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