Alex Steer

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Marx's coat and the future of media

753 words | ~4 min

Karl Marx's idea that commodities are objects which have a use value raises some questions for planners thinking about the future of media channels.

In Capital, Marx gives the example of a coat to demonstrate the labour theory of value - the notion that the value of a commodity in a market depends on the useful labour that went into its production. There are problems with the labour theory of value (see here), but more interesting is the underlying assumption it makes: that objects, especially commodities, are manifestations of ideas about value.

Take the coat. Any coat is a manifestation of the idea that there is value in being able to keep the body warm and move around at the same time. This idea provides a mandate for function - 'something should exist that keeps the body warm without inhibiting mobility'. This, in turn, dictates form. A specific coat will be a manifestation of various ideas of value which govern its exact form (e.g. presence or absence of a hood, thickness, length, material, colour, cut), combined with the influence of copying as a short-cut to invention which stops has having to invent the coat over and over again.

If I make my own coat, my own ideas mandate its function, which together with my resources governs its form. If I make a coat to sell as a commodity, it's influenced by my ideas about other people's ideas of value, measured largely by how much they're willing to exchange or sacrifice to get the coat I've made. As a tailor I have to work out which ideas of value to subscribe to, before I can know what the function of my coats will be (e.g. should they be fashionable, hard-wearing, costly or cheap, etc?), as this determines the form.

This is where we make the leap from Marx to media.

What happens if we treat media like commodities in Marx's sense? That is, as items of exchange whose form is ultimately determined by ideas about other people's ideas of value.

When we do that, questions like 'What is the future of magazines?' look rather odd.

We're used to defining magazines by their form: collections of bound pages, intermediate in size between pamphlets and books. Or by their function: as compilations of short to medium-length texts and images, usually on a common theme, frequently topical or current in nature and entertaining or superficially informative in style.

But what is the idea of value in a magazine? Suppose it's the idea that there is value in having access to entertaining and superficially informative topical content which is portable in nature and which can be enjoyed in short bursts without requiring intense focus of attention.

The important question, then, is: is this idea still valuable? If it is, then we can see what kind of function is mandated. We might find that there is still room in the marketplace for a commodity that fulfils this function. We might, alternatively, decide that there is not: that we are now all sufficiently well-connected and well-resourced that we can compile our own entertainment without the need for curation.

If we find there is still a useful function, we examine our resources. Here's where an existing function may take on a very different form. In the 18th century magazines took on the form they still have today (more or less) because printed paper sheets were an efficient and cost-effective delivery vehicle for this idea of value. At risk of summing up the entire digital revolution in six words: this may no longer be true.

So maybe we need to start planning for the future of media not even with function, but with the idea of value. We also need to accept that old forms die hard, as whole economies are geared up to create them. But there may be creative potential even in this. As ideas of value change, the world ends up littered with zombie forms. Just as warehouses became flats in Britain in the 1980s and vinyl LPs are 'upcycled' into handbags in South Africa now, so zombie media can be appropriated as manifestations of new and different ideas of value.

And if this post has left you with the image of a zombie Karl Marx in a coat reading magazines... good.

# Alex Steer (26/07/2010)