A Theory of Communication Labor and the Origin of the Information Society

Joohoan Kim

E-mail: sjokim@asc.upenn.edu

URL: http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~sjokim/home.html 


This paper tries to explain the origin of the information society from the perspective of commodity production--exchange--consumption. Our capitalist system has an inherent logic of developments toward two directions: industrialization and informatization. Efforts to increase the productivity of communication labor caused the "control revolution," and consequently the information society, just as efforts to increase the productivity of material labor generated the industrial revolution, and consequently the industrial society. The concept of communication labor will allow us to rethink fundamental questions of political economy and cultural studies as well as theories of information society, advertising, and value of information, among other things. 

A Theory of Communication Labor and the Origin of the Information Society1 In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. --- Marx (1985a, p. 28) A recent bibliometric analysis2 showed that since 1982 "information society" has been the most popular topic among communication scholars studying information related issues, followed by "information processing." In fact, many scholars have been studying various aspects of "information society": its importance, its characteristics, its consequences and its entailment, and so on. However, most of their arguments might be summarized, at the cost of preciseness, into two points. First, information sector in a national and/or international economy has drastically increased (e.g., Dordick and Wang, 1993; Perelman, 1991; Salvaggio, 1989; Ernste, 1989; Williams, 1988; Lyon, 1988; Lee and Gomez, 1992; Masuda, 1981). Second, information itself has become an important commodity that has economic value (e.g., Stigler, 1961; Arrow, 1962; Machlub, 1979; Machlub and Mansfield, 1983; Mosco and Wasko, 1988; Bates, 1990; King et al., 1983; Naisbitt, 1982; Gandy, 1993). I have no objection to these kinds of arguments. However, none of the studies above raised such questions as: Why did our society develop into the information society? What is the prime mover that caused dramatic innovations in communication technology? To understand the nature of the information society, we must, first, think about its origin. Without knowledge of its cause, we will never fully understand what the information society is, much less what it may bring about. In this sense, it is surprising that so few scholars have raised the question of the origin of the information society. In the preface of his book, Beniger (1986, p. v) asks: Among the multitude of things that human beings value, why should it be information, embracing both goods and services, that has come to dominate the world's largest and most advanced economies? Despite scores of books and articles proclaiming the advent of the Information Society, no one seems to have even raised --much less answered--this important question. As far as I know, Beniger (1986) is the only one who has tried to answer the question thoroughly in a systematic way. It seems to me, however, that Beniger's answer in The Control Revolution did not hit the mark. Let me summarize his account of the origin of the information society in its simplest form: The industrial revolution caused a crisis in control, and the imperative to cope with the crisis provoked the control revolution, which, in turn, brought about the information society. But the "control revolution" itself cannot be an ultimate answer to the question of the "origin" of the information society, just as the "industrial revolution" itself cannot be a satisfiable answer to the question of the "origin" of the industrial society. In this sense, he simply replaced one question with another. After reading The Control Revolution, we cannot help asking: What is the origin of the control revolution? Why do we need "control" anyway? To answer the question thoroughly, I believe, we should look into the processes production--exchange--consumption of commodities. Regarding this point, Beniger's historical account provides at least one valuable insight: The advent of the information society has something to do with the industrial revolution. And the industrial revolution is another name for revolution in means of material production, which intended to increase the productivity of "material labor." I would understand the "control revolution" in the same way: it is a revolution in means of informational production, the purpose of which is to increase the productivity of "communication labor." By "communication labor," I mean all kinds of human communicative activities engaged in the process of commodity production (e.g., advertising, research & development, market analysis, design for product and package). As I will argue later, communication labor is also productive labor producing surplus value through "demand power" production. The concept of communication labor implies that a commodity is co-produced by the two kinds of labor: One is material labor, which is usually carried out by blue-collar workers in factories, and produces material aspects of a commodity. The other is communication labor, which is usually carried out by white-collar workers in offices, and produces meaning aspects of a commodity by working on the "informational conditions" for the exchange. In this paper, I will explore the origin of the information society through the analysis of the commodity production process with Marx's (not Marxists'!) labor theory of value and the notion of "communication labor." As I pointed earlier,3 Marx's labor theory of value has a certain logical inconsistency as well as practical limitations that preclude its direct application to today's late capitalist and information society. However, if combined with the concept of the communication labor, the labor theory of value would be one of the most reliable and powerful theoretical frameworks now available to help us penetrate the core of the information society. My claim is that our capitalist society, which is based on the commodity production-consumption-reproduction system, inherently contains the logic of development toward the information society. To disclose the "inherent logic," I will try to answer the question: What is the role of human communication in the process of commodity production, exchange, and consumption? And to illustrate the nature and the function of communication labor, I will re-criticize political economists' traditional critiques on advertising which is an archetype of communication labor.


Marx believed that the whole mechanism of capitalist society could be understood only by analyzing a "single commodity" (1977a, p. 43), which is a "cell unit" of the body called capitalism. For Marx, a commodity is not a simple object whose use-value is determined by its own material properties, because "every object possesses various properties, and is thus capable of being applied to different uses" (p. 177). Human beings are able to find various uses for the same thing, therefore, the utility of a thing is not determined simply by its material aspects, but by flexible relationships between human desire and objects. The "utility of a thing" makes the thing a use-value (p. 44), and "the use-value of objects belongs to them independently of their material properties" (p. 87). In other words, the use-value of a commodity is not merely a material thing but a cultural configuration to be determined by the relationship of humanity and nature. However, ironically enough, modern Marxists' way of understanding a commodity is fundamentally different from that of Marx himself. Marxist theorists, nonetheless, firmly believe that each commodity has a "genuine use-value" that is based on its materiality. Consequently, they think that advertising is "an agent for commercial advantage" and creates "false consciousness" in consumers (Williams, 1980, p. 189). And according to Williamson (1991, p. 14), "It [advertising] 'works' because it feeds off a genuine 'use-value'; besides needing social meaning we obviously do need material goods" (her italics). Of course we "obviously do need material goods." But when we are hungry, what do we need? Some protein or fat? Absolutely not. Rather, we "do need" hamburgers (if Americans), or spaghetti (if Italians), or sushi (if Japanese). We do need a material thing that has social meaning, and we do need social meaning that is embodied in the material thing. In a word, we do need commodities as socio- cultural figures. Does "genuine" use-value of a commodity really exist? If so, what is the genuine use-value of a diamond? Is it a glass cutter? Or, something that means "eternal love"? (Williamson, 1991, p.12). What is the genuine use-value of a sports car? Is it a mere means of transportation? And how about Diet Coke, whose image is so closely associated with slim body lines, and yet whose material property is nothing but "relatively less-sweetened" carbonated water? Would you say it is only for quenching thirst? How about sunglasses? Are they for avoiding strong sunshine? If so, why do so many Italian people and rap musicians wear "sun"glasses even in the dark? There is no such thing as "genuine" nor "false" use-value. As Marx (1977a, p. 43) clearly pointed out, "A commodity is.... a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference" (italics mine). It is objectivism that Marxists and classical political economy theorists cling to as their main epistemological basement. It seems to me that they confuse materialism and objectivism. A materialist perspective does not necessarily mean that a commodity is determined only by its material properties. Rather, to take a commodity as a mere material thing is, in a sense, an abstract idea and another form of idealism, since it regards a commodity not as a cultural figure but as a "thing-it-self." A commodity must be an object of human want, and we always want what is expressed to us: we would never want the essence nor the "thing-it-self" in Kantian sense. In our "real" world, everything comes to us as something perceived, and as such, meaningful.4 When we need a car, we do not want a "car itself" as an abstract nor "car as mere means of transportation." Rather, we want "Porsche," "Myata" or "Saturn." From the first, a car had social meanings as means of attaining and brandishing social position, dignity, happiness, and so on (Veblen, 1965). A commodity is a material thing that carries meaning, or materialized meaning. The "meaning" part of a commodity is well known to scholars of cultural studies as well as anthropologists such as Appadurai (1990), Featherstone (1991), McCracken (1988), Sahlins (1988), and Douglas and Isherwood (1982). This is why we need two kinds of labor in the process of commodity production: one is that produces material aspects of a commodity and the other is that produces meaning aspects. Material comes from nature, while meaning comes from society. Consequently, we need not only material labor working on nature, but also "communication labor" working on other human beings. This perspective urges us to rethink the classical labor theory of value.


All commodities are use-values. But use-values are not always commodities. For example, if I produce some wheat only for my own use, then this wheat may be a use-value, but it cannot be a commodity. In order to produce commodities, a producer must produce "not only use-values, but use-values for others, social use- values" (Marx, 1977a, p. 48). This means a commodity must be an object of exchange.

For the exchange of two different products, say, wheat and shoes, there should be a commonalty between them. However, they are two different use-values and have no common thing in either their material characters or their function. (If they are the same use- values, nobody would bother to exchange their products.) But there is only "one common property" between wheat and shoes, which is the fact that both are products of human labor (Marx, 1977a, p. 45). Since wheat and shoes are different things, they would require different kinds of labors. These different "actual" labors are reduced to the same thing called "homogeneous human labor" through the process of exchange. This homogeneous human labor, whose magnitude can be measured by its duration (labor time), is the value of a commodity.

The crucial point here is that the labor can be converted into the value only through the exchange-- and this is also tricky point in Marx's theory of commodity production-- the process of exchange itself does not produce any value (p. 156). "Circulation, or the exchange of commodities, begets no value" (p. 161). And yet, without the exchange, the labor contained in commodities cannot be converted into the value. 

Most political economy theorists, including scholars of "cultural studies" and the "political economy of mass communication," seem not to fully understand the importance of this point. They simply stick to the fact that exchange produces no value. Consequently, they consider all labor engaged in the process of commodity circulation to be "unproductive labor" carried out by the "parasitic class" or "subsumed class," which lives upon the "fundamental class" producing (real) surplus value (Resnick & Wolff, 1987, p. 131). Advertising is also regarded as "a cost of circulation," which produces no value (Arriaga, 1984, p. 57). Consequently, all the labor engaged in the various communication activities produces no value and receives its allocation from the "fundamental class." This kind of "classical" argument might have been plausible in the 19th century when the communication labor sector is yet to be developed. But today, it is not acceptable, because the "parasitic class," or "information sector," which must draw its revenue (surplus value) from the "fundamental class," takes almost 50% of the whole national product in many countries (Dordick & Wang, 1993). Even in a "mid-income country" like South Korea, in 1988 the information sector (parasitic class!) contributed as much as 50.2% to Adjusted Gross Domestic Product, whereas the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors (fundamental classes!) contributed only 1.2%, 32.2%, and 16.4%, respectively (Lee & Gomez, 1992, p. 162). How can a parasite be larger than a host? 

To look more carefully into the relationship between commodity exchange process and value production, take the example of the wheat producer, say R, who produces one unit of wheat with 10 hours of labor. Yet we cannot say its (magnitude of) value is 10 hours. First of all, 10 hours of labor spent by R should be reduced to "the labor-time socially necessary" (Marx, 1977a, p. 47). If other producers usually need only 5 hours to produce the same unit of wheat, R's 10 hour labor must be counted as 5 hours. In the same way, if all the other producers spend 15 hours for the same thing, R's 10-hour labor will be estimated as 15 hours. In short, "the value of each commodity is determined by...the working time necessary, under given social conditions, for its production" (Marx, 1977a, p. 181). The concept of "labor-time socially necessary" implies that the value of a commodity can be changed by the social conditions of production. Here is an example (Marx, 1977a, p. 502): A commodity represents, say 6 working-hours. If an invention is made by which it can be produced in 3 hours, the value, even of the commodity already produced, falls by half. It represents now 3 hours of social labor instead of the 6 formerly necessary. This means that value is not completely determined in the process of production. Then, when and where is value determined? Suppose that at time t, we need 10 hours of "socially necessary labor-time" to produce one unit of commodity C. Then the value of C can be expressed as C(t) = 10. If the social conditions of production change-- for example, labor productivity doubles-- at this point in time (t+1), one unit of C will be produced in five hours of labor time. Now C(t+1) = 5. C(t) and C(t+1) will not be exchanged directly, because they have the same use-value (Marx, 1977a, p. 49). But their exchange will be mediated by a third commodity, for example, money. Even though C(t) and C(t+1) have different amounts of embodied labor in them, they are counted as the same value because they have the same use- value. If the use-value of C(t+1) is different from that of C(t), then they are regarded as different commodities, and their value will not necessarily be the same. Now, C(t) = C(t+1) = 5. The value of C(t) has fallen from 10 to five without any change in the amount of labor contained in C(t). How could this happen? The answer lies in "exchange." If C(t) and C(t+1) are not related in the same exchange process, the value of C(t) would not be changed. Now we can say that the magnitude of value is determined not in the process of production but in that of exchange. But we know that the exchange itself does not produce any value. Therefore, our conclusion should be: value is created in the process of production; but it is determined in the process of exchange. This seeming paradox is the key point leading us to "communication labor." But before jumping into the concept of "communication labor," I think we need to investigate the necessary informational conditions for commodity exchange which is the raison d'tre of communication labor. 


If a product is not exchanged, the amount of labor spent for the product cannot be converted into value. "To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use- value, by means of exchange" (Marx, 1977a, p. 48). What, then, makes people exchange their products? According to Marx, "what makes them [commodities] exchangeable is the mutual desire of their owners to alienate them" (p. 91, my emphasis). Now let's consider the conditions under which people have "mutual desire" for others' products. Assume that one unit of wheat is produced by R, a wheat producer, and a pair of shoes produced by S, a shoe producer. For the exchange of these two products, R and S must "mutually" want each other's product. To have this "mutual desire," R and S must know about each other's products. This kind of knowledge is the necessary informational conditions of "mutual desire" for exchange. What is this knowledge like? First, R and S must know that the other has produced something that can be his or her own use-value. In other words, they have to recognize the fact that there are others' products that could be their own use-value (recognition of existence of a commodity). Second, R and S must know how to use the products (understanding the ways of consumption). R should understand what shoes are for and how to wear them; S also should know how to make bread from wheat. If S, a rice eater, cannot understand how to consume wheat, she could hardly accept R's product as her own use-value. In other words, both R and S must accept the others' products as his or her own use-values. 

Third, they should believe that the other's product would give them some satisfaction (acceptance of a commodity as one's own use- value). Marx says: "Every owner of a commodity wishes to part with it in exchange only for those commodities whose use-value satisfies some want of his[sic]" (1977a, p. 89). Without these informational conditions, nobody could have any desire for others' products; Without such desire, the products cannot be exchanged; Without exchange, products would not have any value. "It is only by being exchanged that the products of labor acquire, as values, one uniform social status" (Marx, 1977a, p. 78). These informational conditions are, therefore, essential for commodity (value) production. It is not coincidence that the basic goals of modern advertising are exactly the same as these informational conditions. 

Besides the informational conditions, R should know, before production, how many units of wheat would be desired by S. Samely, S also need to know how many pairs of shoes will be wanted by R. Without this knowledge (information about quantity of consumption and "demand power"), their labor could be wasted and could not produce value. Let's assume that R produced two units of wheat. But what if S, the only consumer, needs only one unit? Then, the other unit cannot be an object of exchange. If it is not exchangeable, it would have no value. "If the thing is useless, so is the labor contained in it; the labor does not count as labor, and therefore creates no value" (Marx, 1977a, p. 48). This means that R's labor cannot be converted into value; it is wasted. Before the production, however, if R had had the information about the quantity of S's desire, R surely would have produced only one unit of wheat, and she might have produced another product--for example, clothes that might be desired by S. Then, all the labor spent by R could have produced value; no part of R's labor would have been wasted. (Here can we see the essential function of "market research and analysis.") Now we come to understand that the informational conditions even determine whether R's labor would be productive or useless. Here we seem to have a contradiction. One unit of wheat and a pair of shoes are produced. A definite amount of the labor already has been spent, and the products contain a definite quantity of human labor; therefore, they should have a definite magnitude of value. But as we have seen here, the value of the products also depends on some informational conditions. In certain situations, in fact, a product may not have any value at all. How can we accept this contradiction? As I argued above, this is not a contradiction at all. Value is created in the production process, but it is determined in the exchange process. Now our problem is: what kind of factors determine the value in the exchange process? WHAT IS COMMUNICATION LABOR? Suppose one day R produces a new product, say, rice. To make this rice a commodity, it is not enough only that R "materially" produces wheat. R must produce the informational conditions for the exchange as well. This means that a part of R's labor must be spent on the production of the informational conditions; otherwise, the rice, R's new product, cannot be a commodity. The situation is the same with S. To produce shoes as a commodity, S also has to do two kinds of labor. One is the labor for the material production, say, cutting and sewing the leather. The other is the labor for the informational conditions. I call the one material labor and the other communication labor. Both are necessary labor for any kind of commodity production. Even if R and S seem to exchange their products without the communication labor, we may not say that their commodity production has been accomplished without it. Rather, we should understand that the informational conditions for the exchange had already been completed before R and S's exchange by other producers and consumers.5 

The informational conditions are necessary for the "mutual desire," which appears as "demand power" in the market. Demand power is distinct from "demand," which is merely the opposite of supply. Demand power is, based on the use-value, made up of various elements--amount of supply, purchasing power, etc. And these elements "react on one another as units, as aggregate forces" (Marx, 1977b, p. 193). Communication labor produces demand power by producing the informational conditions for exchange. The value of a commodity is, therefore, determined by the two kinds of labor: material labor, which produces material products, and communication labor, which produces demand power. With regard to this point, it will make my point clearer to compare value to weight, as Marx once did (1977a, pp. 62-3). 

The weight of a thing is determined by two factors: its mass; and gravity, which is acting on the mass. We can compare mass to the value created by material labor in the production process, and gravity to the demand power produced by communication labor in the exchange process. Weight is not determined solely by mass nor by gravity; it is determined by both. Similarly, the value of a commodity is determined by two factors: the amount of labor contained in a commodity and the demand power acting on the commodity. Without a change in mass, the weight of a thing could differ according to gravity, for example, whether on the earth or on the moon. In the same way, without a change in the quantity of materialized labor, the value of a commodity could differ with a change in the demand power. If the necessary informational conditions are not fulfilled at all, no one could desire this product, and its demand power would be zero. Just as there is no weight without gravity, regardless of mass, so there is no value without demand power, regardless of contained labor. Now consider the nature of communication labor. To produce rice (a new commodity), R herself must have, first, found its use-value: R must have spent some of her labor-time, say, for research and development (R & D) to invent her "new product." Moreover, R has to make other people accept this new product as their own use-value. Before producing the new commodity, R should think about whether she can produce others' desire through her communication labor (market research and analysis, advertising, and so on), and must have some confidence in creating demand powers for the new product. Otherwise, she would not produce it. Galbraith (1986, p. 181), quoting from Fortune magazine (February, 1967), gives us a good example: Bristol-Myers does not, in general, develop products in its labs and then determine how they might be marketed. It ordinarily begins with extensive consumer testing and other market research, proceeds from there to develop some concept of a marketing opportunity, including even some notions about advertising campaigns; and only then does it turn to the labs for products that might meet these specifications. Demand-producing labor is usually represented as marketing and R & D, which include collecting various pieces of information, bargaining, making contracts, market analysis, advertising, designing,6 and so on. In short, these are various kinds of human communications: this is why I call them communication labor. Some may ask: if communication labor increase the value of a commodity by producing demand power, is it productive labor? The answer is: Yes. Then, does the more communication labor produce the more value? The answer is again: Yes. More communication labor produces greater demand power, and therefore, more value. Let's return to our example. At first, in order to produce S's desire, R has to provide S with some information about the product. If it takes one hour for R to make S simply recognize the existence of R's product, it would take much more than one hour to make S accept the product as her own use- value. Further, if R meets more people, say S1, S2, S3..., she could produce greater demand power. Of course, it would require much longer time. Probably R will try to divide her total labor time into material labor and communication labor using the ratio with which she could produce the maximum amount of value. How can this ratio be determined? This should be one of the main subjects in the study of communication labor in the future. 

Later, R will try to find a more efficient means of communication (that is, means of the demand power production), just as she wants a more efficient means of material production. She needs to develop better tools for communication labor--for example, letter (sign) systems and press technologies,-- just as she wants to invent more productive tools for material labor--for example, engines and machinery.7 In other words, commodity producers want to increase the productivity both in material labor and communication labor. I would argue that the efforts to increase the productivity of material labor caused the industrial revolution, which brought about the industrial society, and the attempts to increase the productivity of communication labor resulted in the "control revolution," which brought about the information society.

Today, the most developed communication systems (various sign systems and mass media) undertake the role of social indirect capital (public goods), much like freeways, railroads, airports, and so on.8 This kind of "communication constant capital"9 is usually called as "information infrastructure." The National Telecommunications and Information Administration defines the information infrastructure as "all of the facilities and instrumentalities engaged in delivering and disseminating information throughout the nation including not only the telecommunications industry but also mass media (broadcasting and cable television service), the postal service, publishing, printing, and the production and distribution systems of the motion picture industry" (Sirbu, 1992, p. 155). And the importance of information infrastructure to the economy is well summarized in "The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action" issued by the White House (United States Information Infrastructure Task Force, 1993). 


Rethinking political economy of advertising from the perspective of communication labor will help us clarify the concept of communication labor. There have been many discussions regarding the nature of advertising--what it is and what it does (Schudson, 1981, p. 3). But most of them share, implicitly or explicitly, one common presupposition: the institutions of mass communication, including those of advertising, are a "consciousness industry" (Smythe, 1977, p. 1), "program industry," "illusion industry" (Haug, 1986), or "culture industry"(Negt & Kluge, 1983, p. 65). These terms imply that the function of mass communication and advertising is essentially different from that of economic processes in general. Most discussions of critical scholars, therefore, focus on how mass communication and advertising "affect" economic processes with the "false consciousness" of "hegemonic ideology." As a result, they need a "distinct" theoretical framework for mass communication phenomena and cannot help making "a choice between a theory of economic processes on the one hand and a theory of ideology on the other" (Murdock, 1978, p. 118). Their dualistic presuppositions stem from "classical" economic determinism. For example, Garnham (1990, pp. 21-22) repeats "the axiom that the economic is determinant under capitalism. Capitalism is a mode of social organization characterized by the domination of an abstract system of exchange relations" (his emphasis). 

But without human communication and without "production and exchange of information," as we have seen above, economic "exchange relations" cannot be established. Human communications are the essential part of commodity production. With the perspective of communication labor, we can extricate ourselves from the dualism of economy and ideology, or of matter and ideas, or of object and subject. My claim is that the institutions of mass communication do not only "affect" the economic process from the outside. Mass communications themselves are the core part of the whole economic system. There is no "consciousness industry" to be distinguished from the general "economic" industries: or, there is no particular sphere of "culture" industry that is to be determined by "non-cultural" economy. In a capitalist society, each and every industry produces commodities and values, which themselves are parts of culture as well as economy. This is a natural conclusion from the simple fact that a commodity consists of not only materials but social meanings.10 In this sense, the assertions of Smythe in his "blind spot" debate stand out from most other arguments. Without being overwhelmed by economic determinism, he insists that we should examine the role of the so-called consciousness industry "in the reproduction of capitalist relations of production" (1977, p. 1). And he understands that the important question "about mass communications systems is what economic function for capital do they serve... What is the commodity form of mass-produced, advertiser-supported communications? This is the threshold question" (1977, pp. 1-2, his emphasis).

But it does not seem to me that he correctly answers his own question: Smythe should have answered that "advertising supported by mass media" produces a commodity itself, or more precisely, the demand power of a commodity. Instead he answered: "I submit that the materialist answer to the question -- What is the commodity form of mass-produced, advertiser-supported communications under monopoly capitalism? -- is audiences and readerships" (p. 3). In short, he insisted that advertising produces "audiences" as a commodity and that mass media sell it to advertisers. I do not understand in what sense this kind of answer is "materialist." Audiences might be a "commodity" in metaphoric discourse, but can never be a commodity in a theory of political economy. 

"Audiences' time" is not something to be sold, either. But Smythe says, "Of the off-the job work time, the largest single block is time of the audiences which is sold to advertisers" (p. 3). This may sound plausible. But we never buy nor sell time. Time itself--or audiences' time-- has no value, no use-value, no exchange-value. Time is not a commodity. Time is only the "measure of the quantities of the labor," that is, the "labor-time" (Marx, 1985b, p. 31). Just as "carat" is a measure of the value of diamonds, "time" is the measure of the value of something else. Time itself is no more a value than a carat is. Time has, therefore, nothing to do with values where there is no productive labor. 

Nevertheless, some people seem to go even further than Smythe. For example, Jhally and Livant (1986, p. 130) says: "What advertisers buy with their advertising dollars is audiences watching time, which is all the media have to sell....When media 'sell time' to a sponsor, it is not abstract time that is being sold but the time of particular audiences. "Watching time" is not labor time because "watching advertising" is not productive labor. With regard to advertising, only the communication labor producing the advertising material is productive labor: for example, the labor of market researcher, copy- writer, account executive, designer, printer, cameraman, and art director, to name a few. Their labor constitute the communication variable capital (CVC).11 These communication workers produce surplus-value by increasing demand power. It would be, therefore, false to say that "the labor time spent in advertising the commodities does not create any surplus value" (Arriaga, 1984, p. 59). We may conceptualize mass media and other communication systems (e.g., national information infrastructure) as communication constant capitals (CCC). This means that "what advertisers buy with their advertising dollars" is not "audiences' watching time," but the communication constant capital. More precisely speaking, they pay "advertising dollars" for the expense of using the communication systems, or CCC. The value of CCC, a part of which is represented as "advertising dollars," is transferred into the advertised commodity, and consists of a part of the value of that commodity, just as the value of material constant capital (e.g., machines) is transferred into the value of a commodity. 

For Jhally and Livant (1986), however, "watching" TV is "a form of labor" (p. 133), and therefore, a "real economic process" (p. 125). "Audiences," which allegedly is a commodity, produce values by watching TV commercials. According to them, the audiences' "'wages' are the programs, without which they would not watch TV" (Jhally, 1982, p. 208).12 Consequently, longer advertising time produces absolute surplus value; if this is impossible, "the networks" can make "the time of watching advertising more intense -- they can make the audiences watch harder" (Jhally & Livant, 1986, p. 133). This is a beautiful metaphor. But do I actually become a commodity simply by watching TV? And do I (a commodity!) create values just by watching TV? Then I am a laborer, I am a commodity and my labor is embodied in my consciousness.13 Despite all these illusive assertions, they still call themselves "materialist" (Jhally and Livant, 1986, p. 124). Livant was right when he said that "the field of communications is a jungle of idealism" (in Smythe, 1977, p. 3). I think it is appropriate to use a metaphor to criticize a metaphor. We can get tap water simply by opening a water faucet. Then, is the act of "opening the faucet" the labor that produces water? Would you say that we can get "surplus water" by opening the water faucet "for a longer time" and "intensively"? Or, again: we can turn on electric lights just by clicking the switch with our fingers. But nobody would say that "clicking the switch" produces the electric light that illuminates the room. The electric light is produced by the labor that constructs the electronic facilities and makes the electric bulbs and wires, not by our finger movements of "clicking." Tab water is produced by the labor constructing water supply infrastructure and the faucet, not by the end users' finger movements. Value of advertised commodities is produced by the productive communication labor that constructs and operates media system and produces advertising materials, not by viewer's watching. "Watching TV" is no more productive labor than "opening the faucet" and "clicking the switch." 

Why theses analysts go astray? Because their basic assumptions about advertising are wrong. As communication labor, advertising is an essential and indispensable part of commodity production. Advertising is not just a problem of "speeding up the selling" (Jhally & Livant, 1986, p. 125) but a problem of producing a commodity. Advertising is not "a cost of circulation" (Arriaga, 1984, p. 57), but a cost of production. It is not "capital functioning in the sphere of circulation" (Arriaga, 1984, p. 59), but capital functioning in the sphere of production. COMMUNICATION LABOR AND PRODUCTION OF CONSUMPTION Now we should consider the function of communication labor with regard to consumption since the process of commodity production is completed only through consumption.14 As we can find various utilities in a thing, so we may consume a commodity in various ways. 

For example: A bottle of vintage port may enjoy a prestige and exclusivity which means that it is never actually consumed (opened and drunk), although it may be consumed symbolically (gazed at, dreamed about, talked about, photographed, and handled) in various ways which produce a great deal of satisfaction. (Featherstone, 1991, p. 16) This example implies that the utility of a commodity is to be determined in the flexible relations between commodity and consumer. Here, we might compare commodity production to text production. Just as a text producer (an author) "has to rely upon a series of codes" (Eco, 1979, p. 7), a commodity producer must furnish "a series of codes" or "manner of consumption" with which consumers interpret the utility of commodities. And as "the author has thus to foresee a model of the possible reader (Model Reader)" (Eco, 1979, p. 7), the commodity producer must anticipate and provide a model for the possible consumer whom we may call the Model Consumer. It would be the essential function of communication labor (marketing and advertising) to "anticipate and provide" the series of codes for consumption. Consider a more interesting example: If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living in which we use things, we should find most advertising to be of an insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young at heart, or neighborly. A washing machine would be a useful machine to wash clothes, rather than an indication that we are forward- looking or an object of envy to our neighbors. (Williams, 1980, p. 185) We can imagine the situation here: With the help of advertising, the new "manner of consumption" or new "series of codes" for the consumption of beer (that is, showing "ourselves to be manly, young at heart, or neighborly") has been presented. Now the advertised beer has acquired the "additional" utilities that Williams regards as "an insane irrelevance." But as we have seen before, the "true need" and the "genuine" use-value of a commodity do not exist. The same is true with texts, which have no "one true meaning" (Barthes, 1977). Who can possibly decide the "genuine use-value" of a beer? Sahlins (1988, p. 132) points out that "one cannot determine the nature of what is produced -- which is to say the character of use-value -- simply from the nature of human needs or the fact that production satisfies them." Let's assume that beer A is advertised as something for "being sexy," and beer B for "being neighborly." Then, people who want to be "sexy" would drink beer A, and those who want to be "neighborly" would drink beer B. Can we say beer A and beer B have the same "use-value" simply because they have the same material properties? Absolutely not. One of the use-values of beer A would be the "means of being sexy" and that of beer B would be the "means of being neighborly." Whether the beer consumers can really be "sexy" or "neighborly" does not make any difference here. This is another example of, borrowing Jean Baudrillard's terms, "the fluidity of objects and needs" (in Poster, 1988, pp. 44-45). If the advertising that depicted the beer as the means of "being manly" was really "an insane irrelevance," the advertising could not have succeeded in providing a new "series of codes" for interpretation (consumption) of the beer, and it would have failed to create the new utility. Every product has various properties, and we can find various use-values in the same thing. As Marx says, "to discover the various uses of things is the work of history" (1977a, p. 43). I would add: "and also the work of advertising."15 Producing a new meaning and utility of a commodity implies that human wants (needs) for the commodity can also be newly produced. Marx (1973, p. 92) says that "no production without a need. But consumption reproduces the need: Production not only supplies a material for the need, but it also supplies a need for the material." Using the "series of codes" of consumption (say, showing oneself to be manly and neighborly by drinking the beer), consumers satisfy their "newly produced" wants by interpreting the meaning and utility of the commodity. This is possible because "our wants and pleasures have their origin in society," not only in our biological bodies. Since our wants are "of a social nature, they are of a relative nature" (Marx, 1985a, p. 33). 16 

In order to provide beer consumers with "new wants," the manufacturer (producer) should have some information about the beer market and everything else related: Who drinks beer, when, and why? What kind of beer could be preferred most? In short, the manufacturer needs communication labor. Besides, before the material production process, the beer must be projected and designed as something that could satisfy some "social needs to-be- produced." For this, every process regarding the beer production (for example, alcohol content of the beer, design of the bottle and package, name and total image, positioning in the beer market, and so on) should be decided for the single purpose: creating the new "meaning" (utility) of the beer. And then, advertising would also be designed and produced for the same purpose: creating the new "series of codes" for beer interpretation (consumption). All of these processes are accomplished by various communication labors. We can say the same thing with any other commodity that exists in our everyday life. Marx (1973, p. 92) summarizes: Production thus not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object. Thus production produces consumption (1) by creating the material for it; (2) by determining the manner of consumption; and (3) by creating the products initially posited by it as objects, in the form of a need felt by the consumer. It thus produces the object of consumption, the manner of consumption and the motive of consumption. Now it is clear that the production process produces not only "the object of consumption," which is produced by the material labor, but also "the manner of consumption and the motive of consumption," which are produced by the communication labor. With this perspective, we can understand why the capitalist production system need to have two distinct parts: Factories where the material production is carried out by manual workers, and offices where the demand power production carried out by communication workers. Without communication labor, producers cannot create a new "meaning" of their products. Without the new meaning, a beer will be just a beer forever. Were it not for advertising, every beer would lose its name and remain as homogeneous products17 with the same meaning and utility regardless of its producers. Every beer would be consumed by the same people with the same "manner of consumption." There would be no way to create a new market for a new beer. Consequently, without communication labor, "the reproduction of capital on a progressively increasing scale" (Marx, 1977a, p. 545) would have been impossible from the first. Late capitalism based on the monopoly system would not be possible, either. Haug (1986) also regards "aesthetic monopolization of use- value" and "the fight for and with names" as "the first effect and instrument of monopolization" (pp. 24-34). Modern advertising supported by mass media created monopoly capitalism, not vice versa. 


Were it not for advertising, "new items" and "new models," which are the necessary conditions for the capitalist production system, could not be produced, because without "demand power production," as we have already seen, "new items" cannot be a "use-value for others." For example, without various communication labors including national advertising, a "new item" such as Eastman's Kodak film, which "divorced for the first time from all the chemical manipulation" of development and print, could never have been "a mass-produced commodity," because people would not have accepted the fact that "any person of ordinary intelligence" could take a photo (Pope, 1983, p. 51). In other words, the big campaign with the slogan of "You press the button and we do the rest," which fulfilled the necessary informational conditions for exchange, had made Kodak film a new "use-value for others" and a mass-produceable commodity. 

The same is true with the commodities of American Tobacco Company, Gillette Safety Razor Company, American Cereal Company, and so on. And every commodity was once new when it appeared on the market for the first time. Into American supermarkets alone, "over 6,000 new items are introduced every year" (Bogart, 1986, p. 42). According to Pope's (1983) historical account of American advertising, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the development of national markets for branded, standardized products had been possible only because of the development of nationwide advertising. The first "packaged and branded product," Walter Baker's Chocolate, could be produced only after national advertising became possible (1983, p. 31). And "it was also national advertising that underwrote the growth of national media, in particular, the mass-circulation magazines and, later, radio and television" (Pope, 1983, pp. 8-9). Pope also explains how the development of the means of communication brought about the advent of "mass-production industries" and the modern capitalist production system. Of course, as Pope himself recognizes, "Advertising was not, in fact, omnipotent; however, its power, when combined with other innovations in manufacturing and distribution, was real enough" (p. 9). But he did not make it clear why the power of advertising is "real enough," especially when it is combined with innovations. We can answer the question simply: When "a new item" is produced through innovations, the "informational conditions for exchange" would be fulfilled less easily than in the case of "an old item" that people know well. 

Now it is clear that without communication labor new commodities (new items, new models, new design, and so on) cannot be produced at all: Capitalists would not dare to change the models or to produce the new items without in the conviction in the power of the modern advertising. Advertising (communication labor) exists, therefore, before the commodity itself, ontologically, logically and even historically. Berman (1982, p. 61) says, "We often think of advertising as if it were a modern invention, but it is nearly as old as history itself." 


In this paper, I have tried to account for the origin of the information society from the perspective of commodity production-exchange- consumption processes. Our capitalist society, which is based on the system of commodity production and reproduction, has an inherent logic of development toward the information society. To get more surplus value, capitalists had to increase the productivity of labor. First, capitalists tried to create more surplus value by increasing the productivity of material labor. These efforts brought about the industrial revolution and finally the industrial society. Later, they also attempted to increase the productivity of communication labor. These endeavors caused the "control revolution" (Beniger, 1986) and finally the information society. Why, then, did people become so eager to increase the productivity of communication labor? It is because there were certain physical and practical limitations in increasing the productivity of material labor. For example, the growth of the working class, which has continuously decreased the labor time, made it more difficult for capitalists to increase the surplus value only by exploiting material labor. On the contrary, communication labor has no such limitations, because it produces value and surplus value by increasing demand power. And increasing demand power became much easier with the innovation of more intensive and effective means of communication. Today, technological innovations in the means of communication labor have become more crucial than those in the means of material production.18 If our capitalist system had not discovered how to increase the productivity of communication labor through innovations in the means of communication, I believe, far from developing into the information society, the capitalism would have collapsed just as Marx predicted. The whole secret of information society, therefore, lies in a very simple fact: we need communication labor to produce a commodity. Why do we need the communication labor? Because a commodity is a "use-value for others, or social use-value." If I produce something and I myself consume it, I need not spend a part of my labor to produce the necessary informational conditions. To make my products have "social use-value," however, I have to produce not only material substances but also other people's desire for my products. As Marx (1973, p. 92) clearly points out, we have to produce not only "the object of consumption" but also "the motive of consumption." To produce other people's desire for my products, we should fulfill the necessary informational conditions for exchange: for example, recognition of existence of a commodity, understanding the method of consumption, acceptance of a commodity as one's own use-value. And to satisfy these conditions, we need to perform various communication activities such as market research and analysis, advertising, and so on. I call these communication activities communication labor. 

By satisfying the informational conditions for exchange, we produce other people's desire for our own products. And the "desire" of other people appears as an aggregated form of "demand power" in the market. Though the value of a commodity is created in the production process, the magnitude of the value is determined in the exchange process or in the market. By increasing the demand power, we can increase the value of a commodity, just as by increasing the gravity we can increase the weight of an object. The value of a commodity is, therefore, determined by the two kinds of labor: material labor, which is usually carried out by blue collar workers in factories, and communication labor, usually done by white collar workers in offices. The reason why we need the two aspects of commodity production is that a commodity itself consists of the two parts: material and social meaning. Modern means of communication labor such as "advertising supported by mass media" have made it possible to change the social contexts of a commodity and to provide a commodity with a new social meaning in a very short time. With a slight change in its meaning, a commodity could be reproduced as a "new item," without any change in its material properties. This is the secret of how capitalists get more surplus value without exploiting more material labor; how capitalism keeps on going without collapsing; why we now confront the "control revolution" and information society. The information society, which is characterized by the "control revolution," originated with the efforts to increase the productivity of communication labor, just as the industrial society, which is characterized by the industrial revolution, originated with the efforts to increase the productivity of the material labor. 


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1. An electronic version of this paper can be retrieved from the 

author's World Wide Web personal homepage. The URL is: (DELETED). 

2. (note deleted) 

3. (note deleted) 

4. As Merleau-Ponty (1962) once showed us clearly, "The world is 

what we perceived." 

5. For example, Sinclair (1989, p. 2) points out, "retail price 

advertising usually presupposes that the products have already been 

made known through prior advertising by manufacturers or 


6. We might say that the design process (of both package and the 

commodity itself) includes aspects of both characters of material 

labor and communication labor. According to Krippendorff (1989, p. 

9), "design is a sense of creating activity," and it is "concerned with 

the subjective meanings of 'objectively existing' objects." And 

Kawama (1987, p. 69) says, "Designers translate abstract ideas into 

concrete products through the design process." 

7. "Even in the field of non-linguistic labor, instruments are in 

continual evolution" (Rossi-landi, 1983, p. 47). 

8. According to Advertising Age (Feb. 1, 1993, p. 1), "Time Warner's 

planned 'electronic superhighway' will open up unlimited 

opportunities for marketers as well as consumers, company 

executives and media industry." 

9. Thc concept of communication constant capital was borrowed from 

Rossi-Landi (1983), who says: "[A]s a universal means of exchange 

for any communication, .... the language in all respects constitutes the 

constant capital of all further linguistic work, that is, of all expression 

and communication" (pp. 46-48, my emphasis). 

10. In this sense, the recent debates (Garnham, 1995a, 1995b; 

Grossberg, 1995; Carey, 1995; Murdock, 1995) concerning the 

relationship between cultural studies and political economy lack at 

least one crucial point--namely, how we conceive the nature of 


11 Marx distinguishes two kinds of capital in the process of 

commodity production. One is "constant capital," which is represented 

"by the means of production, by the raw material, auxiliary material 

and the instruments of production"; the other is "variable capital," 

which is represented "by labor-power" or wages (1977a, p. 202). 

12 But advertisers' use of TV is not limited within commercials; for 

their advertising, they use "programs" as well. When we watch a 

sports program on TV, we cannot help seeing advertisements on the 

fences of the ground and on the uniforms of the players. Even in 

films, we can find the same thing: those who have seen the "Back to 

the Future II" may recall that the actor wore the fantastic electronic 

Nike shoes and preferred Pepsi-Cola. 

13. The title of the chapter, where Jhally and Livant extensively 

analyze "watching as working," is "The valorisation of consciousness" 

(Jhally, 1990). 

14. "The product only obtains its 'last finish' in consumption" 

(Marx,1973, p. 91). 

15. This does not mean that I deny the existence of "misleading 

advertising" (Harris, 1983, pp. 169-73). It is not difficult to find 

"deceptive" or "fraudulent" advertisements in our society. But they th 

mselves are not the productive communication labor, but "evil by- 

products," just as pollution is the evil by-product of material 

production. Misleading advertising should and could be controlled by 

industry policies and civil movements, just as environmental 

pollution is controlled. 

16) For example, "Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by 

cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from 

that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth 

(Marx, 1973, p. 92). 

17. "Differentiated images replaces diverse realities. In order to 

promote a desire for the new, advertising subverts our attachment to 

the old" (Pope, 1983, p. 11). 

18)For example, as Schiller (1988, p. 37) observes, "investment in 

'high-tech' products, including computing, accounting, and office 

machines, communication equipment, and instruments, far 

outstripped investment in traditional agricultural and manufacturing 

equipment over the 1979-1984 period."


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