Filed Under (SW9) by Brianca King on 25-10-2010

The Deliberations article I read was iSmart: The Commodification of Intelligence, written by Bao Tran-Phu. Bao’s paper was on how intelligence has become a commodity that can be bought. The article starts by comparing intelligence to other things that have become commodified like the human body and its organs. You can now pay for a new heart or liver. Surrogates have become popular and now you can pay another woman to carry and deliver your child for you. This comparison implies that intellect was no exception and it was only a matter of time until intelligence became a commodity. He then describes how there is a correlation between the level of education attained and earning potential in society. People with bachelor’s degrees on average make almost $15,000 more than people with only a high school diploma. Examples of the commodification of intelligence that Bao presents are tutoring and “smart drugs.” In school a student can put forth less effort and just pay for a tutor to help them and get the same grade as a student who worked harder to do the work on their own. Some students pay for intellectual enhancement by buying prescription medications like Adderall and Ritalin. Bao goes further into the issue and analyzes how society has helped with the commodification of intelligence with its shift from valuing physical skill to intellectual skill. There will be a decrease in the number of factory workers and an increase in engineers, physicians, and surgeons. The difference between these two paths is not the difference in labor but the more exclusiveness and inaccessibility of one than the other. Phrases like “invest in your future” imply that to gain wealth you need to first put money up first. Lastly, Bao says that if the current cycle continues we are on a road to dictatorship. The cycle he is referring to is when a wealthy child is afforded a better education and  then goes out into the world and makes lots of money and the same thing happens for that persons child. Bao ends with saying that eliminating intellectual commodification is the next step toward achieving true equality.

Bao covered all the goals of writing 20. He stated his position on how intelligence is becoming a commodity and engaged with the work of others when he found evidence to support his position. The way he presented his position was appropriate for Deliberations because it was presented in a way that made the reader want to keep reading and also gave the reader something to think about. The introduction for this article was very strong but what really struck me was the evidence used. I never considered tutoring or getting help with work to be an example of commodifying intelligence. I did get a little thrown off though because the examples used for his position didn’t flow together or complement each other.

In academic writing there is always a claim and evidence to support that claim. This is the one similarity I see across the board in all writing. This aspect kind of makes all writing in a way persuasive. One similarity between this article and the literature reviews we write is that they both bring the authors voice into the writing and without it the writing is weaker.

Filed Under (SW9) by Steven Blaser on 24-10-2010

I read the article “iSmart: The Commodification of Intelligence” (Bao Tran-Phu). This article is about how intelligence now has a quantatative cost and is worth a specific amount of money. He uses the example of college and tutoring to show the large disparities that rich people have over poor people in gaining a great education and having more intellectual power, thereby working for larger companies. His work of others was based mainly in his examples, the idea seems to be his own and most of his postulations stemmed from his own thoughts. The work that stemmed from others was statistics and an example of drugs that are involved in neuroscience. He articulated his position very well and his argument was coherent but, in my opinion, not too logical. Although it progressed logically from one stage to the next, he does not argue the middle part very well where he talks about the “value” of a college education and how a farmer should earn as much as a electrical engineer. Since they pay more for their education, it makes sense that they should earn more money than farmers. In terms of Deliberations, it was situated well and seemed like an informative and “out there” type of article that gains the readers attention. In terms of his discipline, I was impressed by the amount of economic terms that he included in his essay. In terms of my literary review, I do not see many similarities. Since our papers were more about using scientific articles to combine and postulate a thesis, it’s hard to compare to his paper that was mostly his original thoughts and just using statistics as backup info. However, there is a similarity in the fact that we have to develop a thesis that talks about radical new ideas and backs them up. In my literature review, there are many parts that I feel would not be appropriate in this article. First of all, I am not allowed to directly quote from sources and I have to use a lot of information from a lot of sources, since many of the ideas are not things that I instinctively know, or words that most people would understand. Therefore, there is a lot of paraphrasing and a lot of unoriginal ideas mixed into the literature review. This creates a different atmosphere from this piece, which is very original and does not do any paraphrasing at all. In fact, it seems that his ideas do not even stem from those of others. Obviously, the same is true of his work in my paper. If he were to use direct quotes in a literature review or go off on tangents (such as the neuroscience part which does not seem very relevant), it would not be effective at all and take away from the overall idea. In our literature review, the entire idea is based off of coherency and placing every single detail back to the thesis. Even one wrong placed word has the potential to completely change the idea of the piece and the thoughts of the writer. I think in his piece that kind of tangency is more encouraged that in the scientific articles.

Filed Under (SW9) by Michael Di Nunzio on 24-10-2010

Michael Di Nunzio

In “iSmart: The Commodification of Intelligence”, author Bao Tran-Phu argues that human intellect is subject to the same forces that control a market economy. In a brief introduction, Bao explains that with each increase in education level comes a corresponding jump in average annual salary. This correlation between perceived brainpower and marketability, he claims, allows intelligence to be treated as a tangible good. To support his thesis, Bao first makes an example of the tutoring market. Because tutors effectively decrease the mental strain imposed on a pupil, the author alleges that two people with inherently unequal abilities might receive the same grade. One of the students, however, would have received this grade as an indirect result of paying a tutor for assistance. Thus, perceived intelligence and the opportunities that it brings can effectively be purchased. A similar scenario stems from the sale of nootropics, drugs designed to increase cognitive performance and potentially boost test scores. Abuse of prescription medications such as Adderall and Ritalin also offer increased mental sharpness for a price, and thereby contribute further to commodification of intelligence. Bao expands on his assertions, arguing that because intelligence is now a purchasable good, it can be passed down by families and hoarded from the poor. The resulting disparity in knowledge put society in a dangerously ignorant position. Bao adduces instances in which certain policies have been based on information acquired from dubious research methods. The public, blind by a lack of knowledge, assumed that the information was correct and passively allowed the policies to be altered. The document concludes with a warning of the threats posed by the commodification of intelligence, and the assertion that this phenomenon must be eliminated.

To build his argument Bao not only cites the work of others, but also builds upon the meaning already provided in his sources. For instance, he adduces the rates of change for farming and engineering career paths to ultimately support his claim that intelligence is being safeguarded as a commodity. The relationship between these two pieces of information might not be readily discernible, yet his writing and logic make a clear connection between the two. I also tried to build upon and make connections between the discoveries of others in my review, relating concepts such as mitten crab prevention and newly developed computer algorithms. Bao’s paper has excellent logical flow and manages to effectively articulate his point while maintaining an entertaining element for the enjoyment of readers. I most admire the writer’s organization and prose. His diction is not overly dramatic, yet gives the impression that the subject being discussed is still extremely important. One large discrepancy in style between my paper and that of Bao is the type of examples used to support the thesis. Bao’ work deals primarily with economic concepts, and he therefore makes liberal use of assumptions when trying to prove his thesis. In some cases he appears to beg the question, drawing conclusions from precarious premises. For instance, Bao states that because intelligence is being greedily withheld from the masses “Dissent and free thought…will decline.”  However, dissent within a population has no historical connection with intelligence. Rather, the discontented tend to rebel regardless of how intellectually inclined they are. Because my review is based on biology, a hard science, I strove to support my arguments with more factually based knowledge. While both techniques are valid, I feel that a paper based on tangible data tends to have more substance than one centered on supposition.

Filed Under (SW9) by Tyler Lacy on 23-10-2010

In Bao Tran-Phu’s paper titled, iSmart: The Commodification of Intelligence he discusses how in today’s capitalistic society everything, even knowledge, has a monetary value. Tran-Phu opens his paper by correlating money to education. He talks about how on average, in our country, people with higher levels of education make more money, however, this education is tied to having money in two ways. One is the expense of post-secondary education. Tran-Phu discusses how  “children from wealthy families receive a better education than do children from poor families and access to higher education is passed down lineages as a family treasure.” Many people are prevented from attending post-secondary institutions because they do not have the means to pay for it and are virtually stuck in a low-education tier and therefore a low-earnings tier. The second way is the wealth of your secondary school. Even the level of education given by public schools in America varies greatly across the country and it has a lot to do with the money in a certain location. Areas that are wealthy (i.e. places that are expensive to live in) tend to have better public schooling whereas the opposite is also true. Tran-Phu writes about how this pattern has commoditized intelligence and is leading to a society where the people who have access to or people who have intelligence also have control over people who are less educated or less wealthy.

Tran-Phu was able to utilize images and metaphors in striking ways that made his paper more effective and his ideas more easily conveyed. His paper was written in such a way that gave him credibility and his presentation of evidence made his ideas clear and his position effective. He incorporated many techniques in his article that I see throughout all scholarly articles and that I try to use in my own writings. Tran-Phu had a central idea that he carried through the entire paper and utilized colorful metaphors, supporting evidence, and carefully planned organization to get his point across. In my papers I always try to make sure that I not only write in a matter that is easily understood and that flows from one idea to the next in a logical manner but that I also incorporate various examples and metaphors to help explain my main arguments. I saw all of these things in Tran-Phu’s article. He successfully wrote a paper that convinced the reader of his main point because his evidence and logic were well organized and explained. In academic writing, people are always synthesizing the work of others and using them to help support one’s own ideas; Bao Tran-Phu did an excellent job at this. He was able to use a scholarly paper to support nearly all of his examples and pieces of evidence. I believe that I could improve my literature review by incorporating more examples of this kind into my paper and that if I were to do that, my paper would be stronger and would more effectively convey my main arguments. Overall, Tran-Phu was able to utilize all of the major “writerly moves” of Writing 20 and present his idea in a very clear and organized fashion using means that are found throughout all types of academic writing.


Tran-Phu, B.  2010.  iSmart: The Commodification of Intelligence.  Deliberations 11: 16-20.


There is general consensus that capitalism and the market forces of supply and demand provide for the most efficient distribution of limited resources.  But the laissez-faire spirit of this economic system has resulted in the creation of markets where markets most certainly should not be – to the point where facets of life previously thought immune are slowly being commercialized.  Bao Tran-Phu, in his paper “iSmart:  The Commodification of Intelligence,” makes the claim that knowledge commodification not only exists, but that its economic trend could potentially grow to threaten freedom itself.  He argues, after assigning the abstract topics of intelligence and knowledge as resources, that the free market system fails to effectively distribute these resources, and instead produces intellectual disparity.  This result is due to the inherent problems associated with commercializing an entity to which the laws of supply and demand are foreign and unnatural.

To illustrate his point, Tran-Phu first asserts that intellectual commodification presents a threat to the ideals of socioeconomic equality.  Forwarding Karl Marx’s principles of use- and exchange-values, he uses economic theory as an analytical lens through which intellectual commodification can be examined.  This is greatly different from how I used sources in my own review, in which focus was placed on incorporating specific, individual points.  Guided by this lens, Tran-Phu makes the fundamental base supposition that knowledge has a quantitative economic market value, one expressible in monetary units.  Approaching the issue with this mindset, the findings he presents are quite compelling.

He observes a general shift in economic paradigm to value intelligence over physical labor.  In other words, the economy has evolved to increase the use-value (from Marx’s postulates), or general utility, of intelligence.  This main argument, established via an applied interpretation of Marxian economic theory, is supported by observed economic phenomena from a wide variety of sources.  Firstly, the author demonstrates the increasing societal importance of a college degree through growing requirements for college-level education in today’s occupations; he further demonstrates quantitatively how net annual income (on average) increases with an increase in the level of advancement of educational degree.  That is, Tran-Phu suggests direct correlations between both knowledge and educational level, and educational level and income.  Thus, by association, knowledge is directly correlated to income in a capitalist economy.

Secondly, he cites the purchase of tutor services – in which a financial sum is exchanged for intellectual effort – and the use of so-called “nootropics” as ways to gain an artificial edge in the intellectual competition that exists in, and is encouraged by, a capitalist economic structure. After all, competition allocates scarce resources – this is another connection to a broad economic principle.  That said, the sources that Tran-Phu uses to support his claim, when taken by themselves, are seemingly unrelated, but they work to demonstrate intelligence as a commodity when in combination.

Having established intellectual commodification through specific examples, he explains that the root of the problem lies in the need for initial capital in almost all ventures, including the pursuit of intelligence.  Because it is expensive to climb the metaphysical ladder that is intellectual stratification (e.g. elementary and post-secondary education costs, college tuition costs, professional school costs – costs being both tangible and intangible), differences in knowledge are based on differences in wealth and wages.  But his relationship, according to Tran-Phu, is a cyclical one, in that “wage disparity remains because access to knowledge and expertise is carefully safeguarded to prevent their dispersion and devaluation.”  Having already shown that intelligence is a commodity, the author illustrates the above relationships through the incorporation of another broad, topic-unspecific theory:  the distribution of wealth; specifically, how the structure of schooling in America is inseparable from the structure of class.  The author links college admissions – which by themselves are passed along family lineages like “treasure” – to the quality of secondary schooling a child receives, which is in turn related to the affluence of that child’s parents.  This idea is demonstrated through anecdote, wherein this requirement of initial wealth (or capital) allows for a never-ending “intergenerational cycle”:  a parent’s affluence enables their child’s educational success, which in turn converts back into the child’s own prosperity.  In this sense, Tran-Phu uses established cases of economic stratification to suggest that knowledge is an exclusive commodity.  He then extrapolates by claiming that this exclusiveness is responsible for socioeconomic imbalances seen today.  His final assertion is that, unless a systemic approach to solve this problem is initiated, the capitalist society could degenerate into a form of dictatorship, in which access to “intelligence” is available to very few.  This assertion seems to finely tread the line of logical soundness, in its susceptibility to the fallacies of slippery slope and continuum (fallacies that suppose drastic causation without the existence of a middle ground), but his argument of a general, progressive loss of freedom due to loss of access to intelligence is rational.

The “writerly move” used by Tran-Phu that was arguably most effective was his way of synthesizing sources that have almost no relation to one another outside of sharing a vague economic trend, and the effective incorporation of those sources.  In my own literature review, I adhered to papers written specifically about my topic species – or at least my topic species’ genus – and Tran-Phu deviates drastically from this.  In one way, his paper is not so much a literature review – because of the lack of a common topic among the selected works he cited – as it is a review of the expansion of the sphere of the capitalist market, made by tying all of his sources together through the string of a Marxian interpretation of use and exchange.  This clever methodology was particularly striking.  Because Tran-Phu’s argument involved the need to systemically correct the intellectual disparity brought about by a capitalist economy, he interpreted modern economic phenomena through the premises of a Marxian economic system – the antithesis of a capitalist system, and one that has economic equality as a fundamental tenant.  You see, the way that intellectual commodification is taking place actually adheres to the tenants of capitalism; thus, Tran-Phu is making the parallel claim that a fundamental change in country’s economic market structure (the way we allocate resources), or at least some level of federal regulation added to the current market structure, is necessary.

This sort of extrapolation however – analyzing a set of works and identifying similarities, from which a stance can be taken – is a commonality in academic writing.  While stylistic differences abound, such as Tran-Phu’s extensive use of quotation and a generally greater subjectivity than would normally be the case with a literature review in the natural sciences, the three goals of Writing 20 are achieved.  Works by others are synthesized to articulate a position.  Only the contexts in which these writings are situated differ – and it is this difference that dictates the differences in style.

In the context of Tran-Phu’s particular discipline, the topic of and arguments in his paper are actually somewhat paradoxical.  That is, in the Writing 20 course, “Writing About Real Things,” the author makes the claim that the abstract invisible hand that constitutes the market forces of supply and demand have taken hold of and commodified the even more abstract notion of intelligence.  But in a way, this deviation from realism – which would inevitably happen when trying to link together two abstractions – has tangible consequences in the real world.  Tran-Phu demonstrated how disparities in knowledge that occur can be used to explain, and in fact are directly inherent in, the nation-wide economic disparities seen in the country.  Although the commercialization of intelligence is abstract, its mechanisms and consequences are grounded in the real; Tran-Phu truly is “writing about real things.


Tran-Phu, B.  2010.  iSmart: The Commodification of Intelligence.  Deliberations 11: 16-20.