The Rise of the Prosuming Machines

The Decline of the Prosumer and the Rise of Smart Prosuming Machines

The concepts of prosumption (the interrelated process of consumption and production) and the prosumer were introduced by Alvin Toffler over three decades ago. However, it took years for scholars in various fields to begin to understand the importance of these phenomena. Now that increasing attention is being devoted to them, they are already beginning to be supplemented, even superseded, by smart prosuming machines. Just as we have discovered the importance of human prosumers, they are declining in importance in the face of the rise of these prosuming machines. While many of these technologies are, or will be, very familiar, what is unique is viewing them through the lens of prosumption. Their increasing importance adds to the view that we have in been error in focusing on either production or consumption, or to in dealing with them separately. All processes that we usually think of in these ways are better thought of as prosumption.

Of course, much of prosumption, or at least some aspects of it, has long been automated and been involved with at least rudimentary smart machines. For example, while a human actor is needed to set a smart machine such as an ATM in motion, once the process begins it proceeds automatically. Similarly, a person is required to order a product on Amazon.com, but much of the rest of the process occurs automatically. A wave of the foot under the rear bumper causes the rear hatch of the Ford Escape to open. Various companies and agencies are registering and accumulating online keystrokes. Prosumers are producing those keystrokes perhaps with the goal of prosuming something such as an Amazon.com product or a Facebook page. However, once those keys have been struck, the electrical impulses are likely to flow into all sorts of data bases to be used automatically on the basis of various algorithms. In other words, a series of automated processes are unknowingly begun by agential prosumers who quickly lose control over them as well as of the data they provide unconsciously. These and many other types of prosumption involve smart technology, but they require agents consciously choosing to set the process in motion.

Of primary interest here is the emergence of smart prosuming machines that increasingly operate on their own without human intervention. The following is a preliminary list of such machines:

One’s smartphone is, unbeknownst to most, collecting (consuming) data on one’s location and transmitting (producing) that data, at least anonymously, to computers that collect it all as an element of “big data”. Google Glass and other wearable technologies (e.g., smartwatches) have the potential to prosume an enormous variety of information.

Foursquare is one of several smartphone apps that will produce an alert for one’s “friends” on one’s location, as well as indicate information on that location to those friends who are able to consume it. In this sense, Foursquare, as well the smartphone on which it is downloaded, are prosuming machines that perform the tasks of finding one’s location, narrowcasting it, and finding the locations of others without any overt actions (other than downloading the app and carrying the smartphone) by the human prosumer.

Instead of producing money to the pay the toll needed to consume more miles on a toll road, e-tolls allow people to glide by or through toll-taking areas and have the charge debited electronically to their accounts. This is made possible by advanced technology at toll areas and transponders in cars. On some roads no humans work in toll-taking areas. Thus, drivers who do not have the correct change will automatically be ticketed. Transponders also allow cars, as well as types of vehicles subject to different charges, to be identified automatically.

The automatic payment of tolls may soon involve cars that drive themselves. Google is developing and testing such automobiles. In today’s cars, the human driver constantly consumes all sorts of relevant information (speed, road conditions, nearby cars) and uses that information to produce a variety of actions (slow down, veer around other cars). Those actions lead to additional acts of consumption leading, in turn, to yet other acts of production. In fact, there are already sensing devices in many of today’s automobiles (e.g. hybrids) that consume some of that information and automatically cause the automobile to make various adjustments. In that sense, today’s cars are, at least in part, prosuming machines. However, in order to drive themselves and avoid mishaps, tomorrow’s automobiles must, of necessity, become much more complex and effective prosuming machines.

Universal product codes (UPCs) make the work of supermarket checkout personnel and shelf stockers easier, but they have the potential to dramatically alter the nature of prosumption. For example, instead of unloading products to be scanned at the checkout counter, the UPCs associated with those products can be read directly by the computer as one checks out. Alternatively, the shopping cart can be equipped with a transponder that reads the UPCs during the process of shopping. The final bill can be tabulated automatically and be ready for shoppers as they leave the store or it can be e-mailed to them.

Patients can be released from the hospital with wearable monitoring devices that consume information on vital signs and notify hospital computers and/or personnel that something is awry. Thus instead of patients prosuming this information (by, for example, taking their own blood pressure) it is prosumed by the monitoring device. We can expect many innovations in this area in the future. For example, Google is working on contact lenses that monitor the glucose levels of diabetics. Soon-to-be released versions of iPhones (and iPads) are said to include a new app, Healthbook, which will gather health-related data, and could collect and report data on heart rate and blood pressure. With additional sensors it could do the same for blood sugar levels and the like.
While drugstore computers are already handling the process of refills automatically (eliminating or reducing the need for actions by prosumers), it is also likely that we will see pill bottles equipped with sensors that sense that medication refills are needed and transmit (produce) the order for refills to the drugstore.

3-D printers consume information (for example, blueprints), as well as raw materials (for example, plastics), and use them to produce automatically an increasingly wide variety of end-products.

Robots already prosume and, in the future, will possess a much greater capacity to prosume. One that is already in existence is the Los Angeles Times’ quakebot, an algorithm that springs into action when the U.S. Geological Survey sends out an alert. It extracts (consumes) relevant data and plugs (produces) the data into an extant template. A human editor is still required to determine whether or not to publish the information.

This list can already be extended significantly and many more examples will be added in relatively short order. While they will individually and collectively get great attention for a variety of reasons, it is important to see them as involved in prosumption and not, as they are likely to be seen, as examples of production or consumption. More importantly, they are part of a larger trend away from a world thought as being dominated by production and/or consumption to one that is increasingly dominated by prosumption.

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