“Own the Means of Production”: What Karl Marx Knew about Opportunity in the Digital Economy

Woman talking into a writing machine

woman talking into a writing machineEven though the Internet is often credited for bringing about a “New Economy”, in fact many longstanding economic trends continue to play themselves out between the “haves” and the “have nots” when it comes to internet technology and media control. The cloud has made it possible for people to outsource control over our data, our privacy, and our intellectual property to large corporations in exchange for convenience. This article talks about that transfer of power and control in the context of a larger social history–Who holds the power in our digital lives and how can digital technology be used to empower (not continue to enslave) the already dispossessed?

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each country has its own ruling class. In capitalist countries, the rulers own the means of production and employ workers. The capitalist class is also called the bourgeoisie. Means of production are what it takes to produce goods. Raw materials, satellite networks, machinery, ships and factories are examples. Workers own nothing but their ability to sell their labor for a wage.

Party for Socialism & Liberation

In Karl Marx’s day, the people who were rich enough to own factories, ships, land, and raw materials had an economic advantage over those who didn’t, creating two distinct classes of people– the “haves” and the “have-nots”.  The “haves” owned all the tools they needed to fully participate in the most profitable business activities of the day– manufacturing, shipping, farming, and producing other durable goods. Those who owned the tools they needed to produce wealth could profit from their position, while those who didn’t control these tools were relegated to menial, dangerous, and profitless labor while also having to pay the “haves” for access to essential goods and services. These class divisions between the “haves” and “have-nots” defined the Industrial Revolution and persisted (to some degree) through all the history that followed. [For an in-depth description of the Means of Production, see this article.]

Consumer vs. Producer Focus

For most of the 1900s, the tools for creating valuable intellectual property were out of the reach of ordinary people. The technology for recording sound, taking photos, printing books, writing software, and making films was prohibitively expensive, and these tools required extensive technical training to operate. The content industry grew up during this time and began restricting access to intellectual property so as to protect the profits of the multimedia industry. This division between the “haves” and “have-nots” again created two different classes, though this time they were called the “content producers” and “content consumers”. A person with a song to sing or a story to share  had to work with the few people who controlled the printing presses, the radio, and the movieplex, often making a very small percentage of the profits from their work. Again, the consumers were put in a position of dependence relative to the producers– silenced from the cultural conversation yet forced to pay a premium to participate in it.

This trend continued well into the Internet age, when mastery of professional-quality media creation tools like Adobe Creative Suite, Final Cut Pro, and ProTools were expensive enough to restrict access to only those who could afford them. Internet technology in the 1990’s and early 2000’s was largely proprietary and required expensive training in vendor-specific systems and highly technical computer coding. Training in these tools was as good as an insurance policy that you would have high-paying work for as long as you wanted it. The scarcity of professional quality tools and professionally-trained workers reinforced the division between those who produce culture and those who consume it.

This trend continues today, though there are more opportunities than ever for average, untrained people to actively participate in the larger cultural conversation using digital tools. Now, someone with a song to sing or a story to share can start a blog, a YouTube channel, or a Facebook page for free using little more than a smartphone or simple laptop. Now you can use powerful tools to express yourself in multiple media, but you often have to give up some level of control of that media to the corporations providing you free cloud tools to share them.

The problem, is that often “consumer-focused” tools force “have nots” to trade an effortless experience for their personal information or control over the way their work is used. Today cloud computing companies give users the ability to build websites, share photos and videos, and post their thoughts for free online. Meanwhile, they are making billions of dollars mining users private lives for information that may be interesting to advertisers. At any moment, these tools can (and sometimes do) close their doors or change their service terms, interrupting all of the speech and economic activity that is built upon them. This is not too different than the experience of being a renter in an apartment complex– everything is great until your landlord shuts down the building and kicks everyone out— you realize that great apartment you had was never yours to begin with.

Seizing the Reins of the Digital Economy

In the digital economy, free and open source tools have made it possible for the masses to use comparable tools to those that the most highly paid workers use to create today’s most valuable commodities– web applications, multimedia entertainment, and other intellectual property. In Marxist terms, it means that for the first time, the proletariat have the same access to the “means of production” as the bourgeoisie.  Rather than being dependent on moneyed interests for high quality websites, graphic design, or multimedia, average people can control the tools to do these jobs themselves.

I see this as a return to the days when people tinkered with radio parts or did “popular mechanics” projects in their garages to become more productive, empowered workers and providers.

This also means that the tools are cheap enough that students, hobbyists, and anyone interested can experiment with professional-quality production tools and learn professional skills without a major initial outlay of capital.

The technologies that run the whole Internet (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) are open source and free to remix, reuse, and redistribute. This freedom supports people’s ability to “look under the hood” of well-designed websites so they can study the code that makes them work.

The open source WordPress content management system lets anyone easily create a website with cutting edge features that would formerly require a dedicated web programmer. TedCurran.net is run on WordPress, and just by owning it, working with it, and troubleshooting it, I have learned valuable IT skills that make me extremely competitive in the modern economy. In this way, I am able to own the means of production for a profitable web design business for the cost of $0.00.

Never before in history has it been possible for the means of production to be available  for little or no cost to everyone. Free, open source software (and the freedoms it is designed to protect) enable you to study, understand, and control what’s happening on your personal devices. It also gives you access to professional-quality tools for web design, video editing, photo manipulation, sound editing, and other tools for free expression in today’s internet.

Cover of

Cover of Rip: A Remix Manifesto

Open (or at least interoperable) media formats allow users to use media in ways that were never intended by their authors. This movie RIP: A Remix Manifesto eloquently documents the rise of remix culture as a way of participating in the larger cultural conversation once dominated by media companies by repurposing copyrighted works into new creations that speak to a new reality. As a remix artist myself (not to mention an educator), I depend on the ability to take digital files like MP3s, JPEG images, MP4 videos, and HTML text out of their original contexts and adapt them to novel situations, audiences, and aesthetic concerns. This is a use case that Hollywood actively rejects, but that history tells us is vital for education, democracy, and personal expression to flourish.

The Haves Strike Back

At the same time, commercial corporations like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft have figured out that they can make more profits by locking you into a “technology ecosystem” where they can control all economic and technological activity that happens on their platform. In other words, they have figured out that limiting your access to the means of digital production makes good business sense for them and their shareholders. In The Web is Dead, Wired’s writers document how big corporations are moving more of the Internet’s activity into privately controlled “siloes” of information like the Apple App Store, Facebook’s walled garden, and the burgeoning mobile app economy that’s entirely separate from the open Internet itself.

The Web We Lost documents how the original mid-2000s Web 2.0 revolution was built upon tools that could openly talk to each other and be “mashed up” into useful new applications by average users with free tools. As time wore on, the biggest players on the Web restricted access to their data and broke those connections that lead to so much innovation.

Today, the line between the “haves” and “have-nots” is defined by who has access to your data and who controls the tools you use. While many of us are tempted to trust Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon with our credit cards, our personal data, and our identities– we must always remember that these are our resources that we should spend wisely and protect fiercely.

For example– did you know that you don’t really own all those songs you bought legally from iTunes? Bruce Willis found out the hard way that he could not will his $9,000 iTunes library to his daughter because he doesn’t really own those files. Did you know that Amazon can reach right into your Kindle and delete books if they want to? Ironically, they’ve already done it with George Orwell’s 1984. This episode of Planet Money explains how for the first time in history, you do not own the right to control and resell digital media like you could with physical books, CDs, and media recordings. The cost of an effortless “app store” experience may mean that you are paying for books and music that you cannot resell, return, or remix. You may find that the friendships and followers you have cultivated on Facebook  cannot be exported or used in any tool outside of their walled garden.

The new Apple iBooks Author is a great example– for the first time, Apple has created a media authoring application where you cannot choose where to distribute the media you make. With iBooks Author, you can only sell the books in Apple’s iBook store or read them on iPads. This is another way where the “haves” are trying to control how we content consumers use their works without considering whether that model fits our needs.

Karl Marx

What’s a Proletarian to Do?

When making decisions about which digital tools, media formats, and vendors you’re going to trust with your data, ask yourself a few questions:

  • How can I get my data out of this tool when I’m done using it?
  • Can I open up and read the code that powers this tool?
  • Who makes money when I use this tool– and who pays them?
  • Is there a good, free, open source option to the leading brand? For this, check AlternativeTo.net or OSAlt.com to see if an open option is available.
  • Does this music/movie/book allow me to use it on other devices, in other apps, or outside the vendor’s app ecosystem?

Whenever possible, try to choose apps, media, and tools that give you full access to your data and do not put any restrictions on how you use or distribute your creations. Avoid buying music, ebooks, and videos that come bundled with Digital Rights Management software– here’s a guide to getting DRM-free media.

Spend your money on a good web hosting account (I recommend Reclaim Hosting) so you can save money when you run your own web server, emailblog site, social network, cloud file sync, social media analytics, cloud music streaming, etc. etc. etc. Not only do you save money on these tools, but you learn how they work from the inside out— and running open source tools gives you valuable experience in system administration. You will also have full control over your own data and will not be at the whims of the various cloud-based services you currently spread your documents, photos, videos, and notes around with.

Open Source projects in the GitHub Showcase let you actually see (and reuse) the code that powers your favorite apps, websites, games, and more. See how the Firefox browser, Twitter, or Wikipedia’s mobile app work from the inside, or better yet, lend a hand and contribute your own ideas! GitHub is an amazing resource that lets you see and share a huge variety of code to help you develop your own tech skills.

This is what Marx would call “owning the means of production” and it may mean the difference between dependence and independence in the digital age.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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9 Responses

  1. Benobi says:

    Thanks for the great article

  2. Dude, excellent article… do you mind if i translate it to spanish, to make it available to all my non english reading friends?, obviusly giving you all the credit for it… i shared it to my Facebook Biography anyway… Greets from Colombia

    • Ted Curran says:

      Thank you so much for your interest, @andresrendon! Your comment reminded me to add some changes I’ve been meaning to include, so take a look again– the article’s got a little more in it now. I’d be honored if you translated it into Spanish– please send a link!

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