[Marxism] Software commodification

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 10 11:23:48 MST 2004


Some Implications of Software Commodification

(c) 2004 David Stutz

I often used the phrase "the commodification of software" to represent 
what I believe is the critical force behind the rise of open source 
software. Broadly used software is now defined primarily by its capacity 
for networked data exchange of standardized commodity datatypes such as 
a web page, an MP3 file, a UNIX executable, or a Word document, rather 
than its application model and user interface. This short note explores 
the concept of commodification in a historical context while also 
seeking to discover lessons that might be applied to contemporary open 
source business efforts.

Commodity

The word commodity is used today to represent fodder for industrial 
processes: things or substances that are found to be valuable as basic 
building blocks for many different purposes. Because of their very 
general value, they are typically used in large quantities and in many 
different ways. Commodities are always sourced by more than one 
producer, and consumers may substitute one producer's product for 
another's with impunity. Because commodities are fungible in this way, 
they are defined by uniform quality standards to which they must 
conform. These quality standards help to avoid adulteration, and also 
facilitate quick and easy valuation, which in turn fosters productivity 
gains.

Karl Marx considers commodities important enough to begin his book 
Capital with a discussion of them. The first chapter concludes with a 
discussion of what he terms "the fetishism of commodities," from which 
the following quote is taken:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily 
understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer 
thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So 
far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it 
whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it 
is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those 
properties are the product of human labor. It is as clear as noon-day, 
that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished 
by nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him.

Marx asserts that commodity markets are more about power, politics, and 
even religion, than they are about their actual underlying resources. 
Commodities exist to facilitate exchange (and, since this is Marx, to 
subjugate the laborer). They are a way to build up an abstract world in 
the image of commerce, rather than reflect a more natural order for the 
world. Commodities are a reflection of the politics of human values: the 
contracts by which commodities are defined, and the standards that form 
the foundation for such contracts, are more important than the inherent 
quality of the commoditized thing. This is a very important lesson to 
learn, and one which the open source community should heed when 
marshaling its limited resources.

Commodity-based exchange existed in antiquity; the Sumerians seem to 
have developed accounting in order to deal with its implications. The 
word commodity first appeared as an abstract English term in the 
sixteenth century, when the pursuit of Commodity - that is to say 
advantage, profit, and/or expediency - began to be a potent political 
and social force. The seeds of mercantilism had begun to sprout, with 
capitalism fast on its heels, and the world needed new words with which 
to theorize about profits and losses. Built into the word is the notion 
of an underlying measure, or standard, to which the commodity conforms. 
(Commodus, the Latin root, can be translated as "conforming with due 
measure".) At the time that this word was coined, Europe was 
understanding the massive advantages, flexibility, and productivity that 
could be pulled from the impersonal exploitation of standardization. 
This understanding would eventually lead to the commodity-based economic 
engines of the great colonial empires.

full: http://www.synthesist.net/writing/commodity_software.html

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