Commodification

Sunday November 29, 2020

Commodification is the process of turning something into commodity, a product indistinguishable from other products of the same type — or, if not indistinguishable, at least differing in ways easily quantified and compared. I moved recently, and was reflecting on commodification as I removed from my apartments all the shelves and hooks and storage methods, replace the blackout curtains with the curtains that came with the apartment, and got rid of all the boxes and bins and unwanted furniture — there I was, making the apartment less comfortable to live in, so that it may be unmarred and undifferentiated for the next tenant. Making it less livable, but more valuable, by virtue of being less distinguishable.

Later that day, I searched for a box to pack my bike into so I could ship it to Taipei. The FexEx website informed me that I could get a 54" × 8" × 28" bike box for $15, but calling a few locations revealed that they were all out of stock. FedEx’s promise of a undifferentiated box broken, I went to the bike shop across the street and asked if they had any boxes to spare. While a mechanic went into the back room to search for a box, I chatted with the guy behind the counter about where I was going, and he mentioned that his soon-to-be-inlaws were in Taipei. When the mechanic returned from the back room, he gave me a slightly beat-up box from an Bianchi bike they’d recently sold, as well as some plastic bits and bobs to put in my dropouts to keep them from getting bent during transit. I don’t think you can buy those plastic bits on their own, they seem to exclusively come from bikes shipped from the factory.

I don’t think that commodification is fundamentally bad — it’s a form of abstraction, that allows people focus their energy on things other than determining the quality of whatever object is being commodified, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. But it is notable that commodification seems to frequently make the individual things that are being commodified less useful, in name of making the aggregate stream of things being commodified more valuable, and I think that it’s a useful thing to notice and be attuned to.