Sunday, March 11, 2012

On The Knowledge Economy

E P Thompson’s Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism is a wonderful essay. It charts how the lives of people, once governed by the changing of the seasons, came to be dominated by the clock. Punished and disciplined, people were made to accept the new factory time of developing capitalism. The piece was originally published in the journal Past and Present in 1967,  and it is yours to access online today, for a single day, for the princely sum of $25.

I know it’s old news, but the rates being charged by publishers to access online journals is astronomical. And believe me, compared with some other sites, the EP Thompson article is a snip at that price. The internet should be a place where knowledge is freely available, yet it is policed and patrolled more than a student demonstration. Last month a group of publishers succeeded in having the website library.nu taken offline, claiming copyright infringement. The site had housed more than 400,000 books, articles and monographs all in downloadable pdf files. It was by no means perfect, and, if the figures are to be believed, those responsible for the site were taking in $10m a year through advertising and donations. But it was a way for people to access publications quickly, easily and, as the saying goes, from the comfort of their own homes. Yet publishers such as Elsevier (who turned a £724m profit in the last financial year) insist on monopolising knowledge.

Of course, in the good old days, one might have sought refuge in the local library, certain that there was at least one place in every town or city that acted as a repository for knowledge. After all, libraries gave us power. Not any more though. Thanks to ConDem austerity around 600 libraries and mobile libraries are under threat of closure. Not that it matters; the publishers of academic journals are charging thousands of pounds (in some cases tens of thousands) for a yearly subscription, a figure well beyond the average library budget.

Which leaves us with Wikipedia, a fine resource and, often, a useful starting point for further investigation, but it is clearly not the same as reading the original material. And, as everyone knows, it has its limitations - highlighted in the most comical fashion following the death of composer Ronnie Hazelhurst. Knowing that journalists cobble together obituaries based on the content of the website, some cad changed the Wikipedia entry for Hazelhurst, listing him as being responsible for the S Club 7 song Reach. Cue hacks staring at their shoelaces and sheepish corrections in the papers. 

Thankfully, there are websites that continue to push boundaries and bring people fine collections of radical writings – the incomparable Marxist Internet Archive being the example that springs most readily to mind. For that matter you can find the Thompson article, free of charge, here. But it really shouldn’t be so difficult. What annoys me about all of this isn’t so much the commodification of knowledge - as contemptible as that is. After all, we already know that capitalism turns anything and everything into a product to be bought and sold. Instead what irks me most is the expectation inherent in the pricing. The cost of the articles reflects the prejudice that only the well off or academics might be interested in history or in ideas. They don’t stop, even for a moment, to consider the possibility that a working class person might want to read the likes of EP Thompson. So, here’s a question from a worker who reads: what price knowledge?