You, Yes You, Cause Unemployment

As a prosumer (one who more-or-less simultaneously produces and consumes), you cause others to lose their jobs- or not to get one in the first place- when you bus your own trash at McDonald’s, cart home and put together IKEA furniture, use an ATM, scan your food at Safeway, and use electronic kiosks to check in at airports and hotels. In those and many other ways and settings you are increasingly doing work that in the past others did as part of their jobs. Further, you are doing that work for no pay making it impossible for paid employees to compete with you, even if, as is likely, they earn the minimum wage, or close to it.

However, your contribution to the uncomfortably high unemployment rate has grown astronomically in recent years with the growth of the Internet, especially what has been termed Web 2.0. What distinguishes Web 2.0 sites is that instead of site content being produced largely by those who work for the sites, the content is produced mainly by the users of the sites. On such Internet sites as eBay, Amazon.com, Wikipedia, Facebook, and YouTube, those who produce much if not all of the content are also the users (consumers) of that content. Relatively few people work for such Internet sites. Instead, you do the work and you do it free of charge. The same is true of blogs, of course, which have put many journalists out of work. While prosumption does create some paid, even highly paid, jobs on the Web, it undoubtedly leads to a great decline in paid work overall.

This is certainly not the only cause of unemployment, but it is a cause that has received little or no attention from journalists or scholars. The blame for increased unemployment is usually placed on impersonal processes such as technological change (including the Internet and those who dominate it) and automation, offshore outsourcing, the growth of manufacturing elsewhere in the world (especially China), and the inability to compete with the low wages offered there. To the degree that you have been blamed for unemployment, it is likely for having not purchased American-made products (where available) and, instead, having bought those produced overseas by foreign rather than American workers.

While all of these causes- and others- are important contributors to heightened unemployment in the United States, the increasing amount of unpaid labor performed both off- and on-line is costing many people their livelihoods. There are no hard data on this, but it seems obvious all of the unpaid “work” we do these days as prosumers means that paid workers are being laid off or are not being hired in the first place. Why retain or hire workers, when hordes of prosumers are willing, even eager, to do the work free of charge?

If the secret of high capitalism was paying workers less, usually far less, than the value of they what produced, one of the well-kept secrets of late capitalism is paying prosumers nothing for their production. The magic of high capitalism was to be found in the gap between what manufacturers charged for their products and what those who actually produced them- the workers- were paid for their labor. Late capitalism is a far more magical place, at least for capitalists, because the prosumers work for nothing. Instead of a great deal (of products, profits, and so on) emanating from very little (in terms of wages), even more is now being created out of thin air; out of nothing (at least in terms of wages). Further, prosumers do it gladly, even happily- none of that alienation associated with workers and no nasty problems such as absenteeism, goldbricking, and striking.

In this new, magical world of late capitalism it is you, the seemingly innocent, even well-meaning, prosumer, who is an increasingly significant cause of unemployment. What to do? To paraphrase Marx, “Prosumers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but labor that that you would find alienating if it was part of a full-time job.. and that costs many others their paying jobs.”

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