Re: [ox-en] Im/material production
- From: Stefan Merten <smerten oekonux.de>
- Date: Tue, 13 Oct 2009 09:36:39 +0200
Hi StefanMz and all!
18 months (547 days) ago Stefan Meretz wrote:
Hi StefanMn and all,
due to having a really fundamental debate, I take the opportunity to
write a bit more elaborate than usual. Therefore, I split my answer in
two parts, one for the question of immaterial vs. material production,
and the second about peerconomy in a narrow sense.
Though the immaterial vs. material production topic is a quite old one
meanwhile I think it is still interesting and of topmost importance. I
feel I learned a few things for this topic meanwhile and I think it
makes sense to re-iterate / continue this. I'll quote fully for better
On 2008-04-10 19:42, Stefan Merten wrote:
May be I should do a general remark here. What - among other things -
I'm currently trying to explore is some new concepts and ideas which
came to my mind. I don't know yet whether they are useful but it
feels like so to me. In that I'd appreciate if you all help to think
this through so we all gain deeper insights.
we're all researchers :-)
Yes :-) .
On 2008-04-07 11:24, Stefan Merten wrote:
The step to material production is only a small one: We need
machines which transform information into some material form.
And we have these. In a way every machine manipulating matter is
such a thing - though probably only the more advanced like robots,
fabbers or all those other cool machines making more and more
people unemployed have the potential we are looking for.
I see the general potential of fabber, but this is far from
becoming an real option.
Please let me note that people / companies using fabbers see this
Of course, because they can reduce costs and optimize production
processes by using it for rapid prototyping or the creation of special
components. They are too far from "transform information into some
material form", but this is not a problem for them, because costs of
recources and production efforts can be made part of the price of the
products on markets. Within market logics this makes completely sense,
but we are taking about peer production of physical goods.
But this is exactly how the way for personal computers has been paved:
Companies (and the military mainly in the US) could use cheap and
universal machinery for their purposes and as a side effect computing
technology evolved and became so cheap that in rich countries they are
common in many households meanwhile.
The general concern in this comparison for me is that though I can see
that it makes sense that every household has its own computing device
I don't see that it makes sense in the same way that every household
has its own matter manipulator. What I can think of is that you have
an universal matter manipulator in a (local) community - but even this
depends on a number of constraints. Indeed it would be interesting to
learn why I think this way ;-) .
As far as the costs are concerned: Even personal computers do not run
from love and air but need electricity so they also need a pre-product
to be used. This pre-product is paid by the owners and this
pre-product is also part of the common infrastructure. The labor /
effort involved to produce one piece for a company is paid. The effort
involved for peer production is usually not paid at all but the peer
producer spends it out of Selbstentfaltung. Of course here is the main
But there are already initiatives who use fabbers in exactly this
playful way: http://bausteln.de/.
What my point is: Fabbers and other universal matter manipulators are
not *the* solution. But they point into the same direction as we saw
in processing information: Machines get more universal and - given the
possible results of using them - more generally available. There is a
technological drive here *inside capitalism* which makes these means
of production more common and universal. This development has the same
structure as the development which lead to common and universal
computers. That is what makes me think that this is so important.
And robots or other production machines are another story.
IMHO they are the same as far as universality is concerned. The
simple machines from beginning of capitalism or even before were very
specific. They were able to do exactly one thing (which is probably
idealized but you get the point). CNC machines were one milestone on
the road to universal matter manipulation machines. Industrial robots
are another one as are fabbers. I'm really interested in what's wrong
with that perspective.
I think, you lost sight of the production environment and the material
recources. In my impression you are focussing on the machine itself.
I still think that it is important to look at the technological
preconditions for some sort of society. The potential for
Selbstentfaltung is according to you a part of the human nature -
which I agree to. This means Selbstentfaltung has always been there.
This poses the question what made the very peer production we can see
today possible. One of my mantras once was: "Free software =
Selbstentfaltung + digital copy". I'm still convinced that the advent
of common digital copy is the technological precondition for peer
Today on a more abstract level I'd say that the availability of means
of production for manipulating the physical representation of
information goods was the enabler. So in this example the technology
was *the* enabler to make a potential reality which was there long
If you accept this, the question is whether for a full peer production
based society we need more technical enablers or whether we already
have all we need. Especially when I see all these means growing in the
right direction I think we could use more technological innovation as
Please don't get me wrong: As an *enabler* - not as the whole story.
But production isn't only about having productive means, it is also
about consuming recources during production. And this is not only
electricity, but also raw material. Then, this brings up environmental,
material specific (toxicity), and technical issues (different materials
in one part) Franz already pointed to. But ok, this is not the main
point here when taking about potentials.
Of course resources are consumed. But that is in general not different
in information and matter processing: Both consume resources.
How this resource consumption is organized is a totally different
question - which is probably answered very differently in a full peer
production based society.
Even for the technical issues you mentioned there are interesting
parallels in information technology. Not all information comes in
digital form and for instance there were quite some evolution before
sound has been transformed to digital information goods which are
manageable on contemporary computers. I agree there are technological
challenges - but there are chances that capitalism solves them for us.
I said, that robots are another story, because their goal isn't
to "transform information into some material form" in a direct way.
Yeah, in a metaphorical sense every production is "transformation of
information into some material form", but this is not meant here.
Robots or other flexible production machines are designed to assemble
parts into a product. The important thing here is, that they reduce the
necessary amount of human labor (leading to unemployment etc.).
That is true. But there were times when information had to be copied
by persons who manually write things from one book to another book.
The printing press changed this radically.
My point is: To lower the effort to produce is an important
precondition for peer production as it seems. If you do not lower the
effort then all the unpleasant and tedious tasks need to be done by
humans and thus limiting the potential for Selbstentfaltung. If robots
do all this stuff then the potential of humans is used much better -
at least potentially. [#]_
.. [#] One of the problems of capitalism is that it is not able to do
this. Unemployed are just useless eaters in the logic of
capitalism. How wrong can you be...
The main point in general is: There is a consistent flow of material
recources any machine need to produce new pieces of some stuff. This is
not the case with information. On an existing infrastructure the
information can "jump" from carrier to carrier.
I think this confuses the ease of digital copy nowadays with magic.
Information doesn't "jump" - it is copied. To use an information
product which is available elsewhere I still need to copy it into my
domain. This copy process needs resources and results in my individual
copy of the information product.
The difference between a material product and a *digital* information
product today is that the digital information product - given there is
no DRM - can be used as the construction plan for a second copy
*directly*. To create a material product you need a construction plan.
The materialization of this construction plan has not much to do with
the final product. But whether the construction plan is available in
this form or in another for me is not a general distinction.
BTW: Even computers could be seen as matter manipulation machines.
And indeed very specialized ones. Only the materials they process is
of rather universal use.
Yes, but this is a too general perspective as already noted, because the
information does not depend on a specific matter, it only needs any
(today: material) carrier. Remember: Computers are _not made as_ matter
Btw: Thinking is a material process too.
Yes. And though I agree that information products *as such* have
qualities different from material products I think when thinking of
their societal relevance it matters how these information products can
be used. And information products - as any product - can be used only
if they are materialized - even if the materialization is only very
For this materialization to happen we need means of production. Before
the printing press the means of production were human effort. Then we
had more or less major industrial facilities employing workers and big
machinery to print words and pictures onto paper. Now we have
computers and the Internet.
Anyway, they all do not bridge the principal difference between
information and physical goods. So let me add the points you
Physical goods are of rival and thus of singular nature, they will
be used up. Information goods are of anti-rival nature and using
means spreading (cf. Steven Weber).
I know I'm challenging exactly this point by my argumentation. I'd
ask everyone to think thoroughly about this.
Therefore physical goods have to be produced consistently, and they
consume consistently resources and effort for each single new
piece. This is not the case for information goods. When created,
using is spreading by copying.
Sorry, but copying *is* creating. You change the amorphous "shape" of
some matter to have a different "shape" and when you are successful
you call it a copy. Nonetheless copying is only a special sort of
creation. Why it is not?
It is. Reading your argument is making a "copy" in my brain. But this is
too general, you see? Copying of some digitized information creates
a material impression of the bits anywhere being readable afterwards.
But the information itself is *independent* from its carrier.
I agree that information itself is different from matter. But though
saying it is independent from matter is correct it is too general when
thinking about societies.
The materialization of information *does* matter and this is where
digital copy and digitization as a whole are important enablers.
Information exists probably since the time life exists.
other hand, each material good *depend* on its concrete material
realisation, because of its singular nature. Metaphorically speaking
you can say, that each single piece of a material product is an
individual (give each of them a name like children do). If this single
individual is used-up, then it is gone. An information cannot be
used-up, it can only be used, and using is combined with copying (which
creates its anti-rivalness).
Marx already saw this difference, when he distinguished between a
"technical wear-out" and a "moral wear-out" of the machines. This
difference can be applied here: Information goods can not wear-out
technically, but they can wear-out "morally". Or as Lohoff stated
nicely: Material goods can disappear by using them, information goods
can disappear by not using them.
Even information goods "wear out" physically: When I switch off my
computer the contents of the main memory will take the amorphous
"shape" it had before. What I consider information goods right now
will vanish in chaos which is the "natural" state of contemporary RAM.
My hard disk is a means to make the information good more permanent by
copying the information to a magnetic device. Everyone who forgot to
save a file will know what I'm talking of...
Both types need infrastructures to get produced and distributed,
and these infrastructures are physical goods which has to be
produced, powered and maintained. However, while the internet is a
common infrastructure for production and distribution of
information goods (neglecting other forms of distribution like DVDs
here), physical goods need "two" different infrastructures. The
production infrastructure constantly consumes raw material and
effort scaling degressively with output, and the transport
infrastructure needs transportation means and effort scaling
linearily (more or less) with amount. This is not the case for
It is not? When the materialization of information goods meant books
there were absolutely no difference here. Books needed (and still
need) infrastructure for production as well as for transportation. If
your point would be generally true for information goods then the
type of materialization they use would not matter. However, as the
example shows it *does* matter.
A book is a material good, but the content of the book is an information
good. As long as these two aspects were closely coupled, you are right.
But now we are taking about digitized information, and then you are not
right: The type of materialization of the information does not matter.
Only if you take the means of production necessary for materialization
as granted - which they are not. The means of production are a result
of a historical process and IMHO history goes on.
Emphasizing that only materialized information goods are of any use
is also a challenge to common wisdom. However, when I think of it I
wonder why I didn't realize this earlier...
This is obvoius, but too general. Where is the challenge?
The type of materialization is unspecific for information goods,
therefore they are of universal and non-rival nature. The reverse is
true for material goods: The type of materialization is specific for
material goods, therefore they are of singular and rival nature.
My main point is: If you are interested in the organization of a
society you need to look at the materialization of all goods -
information goods are not different from material goods in this sense.
Then it depends on the means of production available. If you look into
history you can see how much the availability of means of production
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