January 28, 2024

Big Data and Capital’s Control over Consumption

Sanjay Roy

THE critical need of self-valorisation of capital is not only expanding production of values but also an equally expanding realm of circulation that realises produced values through consumption. As capitalism grows, this expanding production and consumption is related to not only expanding the consumption of what may be called ‘luxuries’ but also creating greater needs which are increasingly included in necessaries. This is in any case a dynamic process. With the growth of income what is considered to be luxury today may become necessity tomorrow.

Capitalist exploitation of surplus value does not require an absolute diminution of consumption needs of the working class rather it may continue with rising real wages of workers. The issue is the net of what values the workers produce for the capitalist and what s/he receives as wages and therefore both being increased in different proportions the ‘unpaid’ component may rise. In other words, the goods and services consumed by the working people in physical and spiritual terms may increase because of rising productivity but their values may decline. Marx never argued that the goods and services necessary for the subsistence of the worker is fixed forever rather it is determined by social, cultural and historical factors and finally the political contestations that determine the social sanction of what is to be included in the working class consumption basket. Therefore, increasing consumption needs of workers is a requirement rather than something inimical to capitalism.

The process of augmenting needs involves quantitatively increasing the consumption of existing goods and services and also of creating perceptions of non-existing potential needs. In this direction, capital has to continuously increase productivity through new technology that enhances production of existing goods and services and reduces the values of those produce, while on the other hand, use technologies to make goods and services appear to be or essentially differentiated. New technology under capital relations serves this important purpose for capital more efficiently.

One of the critical contributions of technology in human civilisation is its ability to reduce direct labour required to produce the same level of output. This actually implies that the same goods and services could be produced using less time with the introduction of technology. But since the basket of consumption expands over time, more labour time is spent to produce even with improved technology. There are two dimensions involved in this production process. One is the creation of new needs and also involving more labour hours to produce the enhanced needs. In capitalism, the possession of goods and services in the neighbourhood by someone stimulates demand for the same in others driving them to earn more and given that few possess the means of production others have to sell their labour power for higher earnings.

Secondly, even if the same output can be produced with less time, the capitalist wants to realise the value of newly introduced technology before its obsolescence as fast as possible and therefore involves more labour time even with the new technology. Therefore, even if technology increases productivity but sucks in labour time as much as possible from existing workers with expanding level of production and circulation. One of the most important dimensions in this process is a continuous differentiation of products specific to consumers’ choice, which is largely called customisation. New technology has immensely increased the power of customisation and targeting of various groups of consumers. Technology comes in aid to expand the realm of circulation by this process and that has also opened up wider possibilities of charging different prices of goods and services based on consumer’s reservation price.

The way producers are able to categorise their consumers and aim to cater to their differentiated needs, governments similarly use these technologies to categorise populations according to their needs. Targeted welfare schemes and cash transfers for different segments of population, namely, cultivators of particular crops, women of particular age, girl child, students, particular communities defined by caste, race or occupation and so on are categorised using appropriate statistical processing tools and with great accuracy targeting them according to their specific needs.

The delivery of government programmes largely depend on data analyses and categorisation of people. This essentially increases reciprocation and control as differentiated provisions appear to be more valuable to the respective segments vis-a vis universal provisions as the government is seen to be particularly caring for respective beneficiary groups. This also enhances political return in electoral exchanges which further reinforces this process of customisation of public provisioning and delivery. This mode of transactions also creates a fetish of technology that enables justifying denial of benefits. This in a sense makes power invisible, as if it is the technological process, which is assumed to be flawless, explains the denial of certain entitlements or access. Hence the political economic dimensions of accessibility and denial appear to be neutral outcomes of technology.


Influencing the consumers behaviour and enhancing their differentiated demand is another aspect of technology intervention in today’s capitalism. The critical resource in this process is data which is mobilised from an infinite stream of transactions and exchanges undertaken by consumers on the internet through portals and social media platforms. The giant tech companies hardly produce anything and they also need not own the means of production. But they are the market makers by facilitating and matching consumers to producers from across the globe. The critical information they gather from digital transactions is the critical raw material which they own. This big data of numerous consumers and producers are procured in each and every transaction and search and this huge data is analysed and packaged to offer granular features of various consumers categorised by age, sex, location and several other parameters that provide information about consumers to potential sellers.

The data is being procured free of cost from the consumers and the analyses of the behaviour of the consumer is something which is critical to influence future markets. Technology enables governments and corporations to identify, categorise and study consumers’ and citizens' needs far more accurately than ever before and that enhances their control over people.

The problem of course is not about technology but it is about capital relations as the power of knowledge and technology manifests as the power of capital by which capital asserts greater control over workers or consumers.

New technology is being used to expand the realm of circulation by offering customised goods and services and also facilitates availability of cheap credit to customers. They are not only able to channelise consumer choices towards specific business goals but can condition human choices understanding their behaviour.

Artificial Intelligence and big data is being used to condition future choices of consumers that would augment capital’s power immensely both in the realm of production and circulation. The immense power to condition consumer behaviour not only for the present but also orienting future preferences is something which the big capital is aiming at. But this control of technology through property rights also restricts the potential of new technology which develops on the basis of free human exchanges and reciprocity within the community of users and developers. A social control of information on the other hand would unleash immense capacity to prioritise and calibrate use of resources according to social needs instead of serving only for private gains.