Over three billion times a day, someone types a search term into Google and within a few seconds receives a list of search results on their screen (Internet Live Stats, 2014). This service, delivered entirely free to the user, has become a cornerstone of the work and knowledge practices of a substantial portion of humanity. But the Google Search business model – like many others in the digital economy – confounds and undermines some of our best established ways of thinking about the economy.
Although Google makes substantial profits by serving up advertisements alongside these search results, the idea that one can run a successful business by giving away a free service to perhaps a quarter of the human race flies in the face of conventional economics. Yet it also confounds Marxist ideas that economic value is essentially a product of labour: both the delivery of search results and the sale of advertising space alongside them are thoroughly automated processes, in which almost all of the processing required is done by computers not people. Nor does it support conventional ideas of the gift economy, which is usually seen as an alternative to the commercial economy, making personal connections on the basis of reciprocal obligations.