Labour and capital in a post-industrial economy
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #47

The information economy will require not only knowledge capital, but also knowledge labour. Labour has historically been subservient to capital (or land, in agricultural societies) as a source of power and wealth, leading to various forms of political upheaval contrary to the naturally unequal relationship between these two essentials of an economy. But the knowledge revolution will change the nature of labour even more than it will that of capital, while also decreasing the distinction between them.

One of the major differences between capital and labour in the past is that capital, owned and protected by property rights, can earn for its owners without their making any significant effort. Labour, though, is inherent in its 'owners' - you really don't need laws to protect your ownership of your capacity to work - and earns only with considerable effort from them. It follows that owners of capital are wealthier than providers of labour, at least until a digital deluge changes the rules altogether.

A strict (but not universally accepted) definition of knowledge capital would consist primarily of those relatively static forms of intellectual output - specific ideas, software, works of art - that can be treated as property, thereby inviting legal protection in the form of patent and copyright. Like traditional capital, these don't necessarily require the intervention of their owner (after the work of painting or inventing is over) to generate cash. Intellectual property rights will do the earning.

Unfortunately for fans of intellectual property rights, they are unworkable. As the sprawling information economy grows volatile and fast-changing, copyrights and patents are simply not going to be enforced. The ease of undetectable duplication, together with the suffocating effects of strong protection on growing markets, have been acknowledged by everyone familiar with both the technological as well as economic aspects. Expertise, then, not information, is the key.

Expertise, which is dynamic and constantly adapting, is not 'intellectual property'. It hardly requires legal protection, and cannot be separated from its owners, the experts, in whom it inheres. Nor do experts earn without themselves making active use of their skills. Experts are, in fact, knowledge labourers.

Not, of course, that these labourers own no capital. Quite the contrary -experts almost always rely on more static works, ideas, resources, that are their own. However, this 'property' being less important than their expertise, knowledge labourers (or knowledge workers, to use a more familiar but not always equivalent term) often don't bother about patents or copyrights. Knowledge capital is not, after all, as valuable as expertise and is also more inconvenient to rely on - so it will act as the auxiliary resource, rather as labour has done in industry.

Once we realize this reversal of roles between labour and capital in a post-industrial economy, we face the prospect of a vast labour force of experts of all sorts. Knowledge labour will not always be high-end, though - for every millionaire quant plotting coffee futures against money- market derivatives, there will be the human agent, cybrarian in the jargon, hunting for curious clients rare species of data amid the information jungle. And there will always be some who cling on to their intellectual property rights and attempt to extract license fees from the on-line universe. But their share of the economy will shrink, and finally, in the era of expertise, what you have will matter less, than what you do.

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