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The Political Economy of Personal Information

Oscar H. Gandy, Jr.

Introduction

Developing a political economy of personal information is a troubled project right from the start. Because its disciplinary origins are materialist, examining its character is immediately challenged by the fact that the product at its core is immaterial. Information is not tangible in its essence; it is only made tangible through a process of abstraction and symbolic representation. Information must be distinguished from the material forms in which words, images, and even more abstract formulas and mathematical expressions of its essence may be impressed and made concrete. More critically, the closer its symbolic representation gets to its essence, the closer the costs of its reproduction come to zero.

Because of information’s intangibility, it is also extremely difficult to manage, control, or limit the access that others may have to it. Indeed, unlike other commodities that may be sold, or exchanged within markets, information, in its essential form, is not consumed as it is used. In general, we assume that the total stock of information available for use may actually expand each time it is used. Obviously, these characteristics make information an extremely troublesome commodity (Landes and Posner 2004).

These troubles begin with efforts to determine information’s value, and to set appropriate prices. Problems in establishing value have their roots in the fact that information, at least in its essential ...

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