Viewers as Prosuming Machines or as Directors of Highly Personalized Movies?

A recent (January 30, 2017) New Yorker article deals with interactive filmmaking. This revolutionary change will allow viewers to affect, consciously and unconsciously, what transpires in movies, perhaps on a moment-to-moment basis. Of course, from my point of view, such viewers (audiences) are prosumers. While viewers- and audiences- are inherently prosumers, this technological development allows for a great expansion of their role in the prosumption process. This is especially true of the productive aspect (which has always been there) of the prosumption of movies.

One of those at the forefront of this development had been influenced by the interactive “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels he had read when he was young (as well as by video games which inherently clearly involve both production and consumption). At central points in those stories, readers are allowed to make choices in the direction taken by the story and instructed to go to the page where the story moves in the chosen direction.

Early experiments in interactive movies put controllers in the audience members’ hands, but this technology offered them only limited options. Momentum started to build when Investors began to see the economic potential inherent in interactive technology, including the fact that it would allow them to collect useful and potentially profitable information on audience members.

The technology already exists allowing audience members to make conscious choices in the direction taken by a movie’s story. Envisioned is a system that tracks viewers’ story preferences and provides it to them. This would be much like the online tracking of our interests and then having ads appear that are in line with them. Even further, there soon will be eye-tracking technology leading to movies that focus on where viewers direct their attention, rather than having the focus predetermined by a director.

Such systems are, and increasingly will be, “prosuming machines”. They will consume an audience member’s preferences- either explicit or implicit in, for example, eye movement- and customize ensuing, or even ongoing, content in the movie to those preferences. In the process, as prosumption itself becomes increasingly unconscious, human prosumers will be transformed into prosuming machines more and more lacking in agency.

However, another possibility is technology that would allow viewers to move objects on the screen. In that case, viewers would have much more agency as they actively direct the movie as it unfolds. The next step, at least conceivably, would allow the audience to be able to insert entirely different objects, as well as people and events, into the story.

Whether it is unconscious or conscious, viewers in the future will be much more productive prosumers of the movies.

Demonizing the “Founder” of McDonald’s: It’s Much More the System than the Man

Although it is rooted in the 1950s and the creation of McDonald’s, the movie “The Founder” is a not-so-subtle attack on ruthless Trumpian-style and –era business practices.

The “founder” in question is Ray Kroc (who never founded anything- not the restaurant, its system, menu additions like Egg McMuffin, the idea that the real money was in the owning of the land on which the franchises were built and the rent that came from it, and so on). After many early failures as a Willy-Loman-like salesman, Kroc was drawn to the McDonald’s brothers’ revolutionary new business model in San Bernardino, California because it had placed an unusually large order for several of the milk shake machines he was hawking. The brothers were happy with their modest success and had no interest in building an empire. Kroc did and to his credit he was willing to work hard and risk all- including his home- on the future of the business which he saw in franchising (another idea and system not founded by Kroc).

But Kroc, like Trump, was ruthless and unethical both in his business and personal life eventually lying repeatedly to succeed. He ultimately screwed the McDonald brothers out of the $100 million a year he had verbally promised to them, but had refused to put in writing. In the end, one wonders whether the deceit was worth it. True, Kroc became a billionaire but he sold his soul in the process. In addition, after his death his wife gave it all away, much of it to the Salvation Army.

The movie is strong on the system that the McDonald brothers created. Its essence is depicted in a neatly choreographed scene on a tennis court with a chalk-drawn and re-drawn floor plan of the restaurant. The system they created drew heavily on Taylorism and time-and-motion studies, as well as on Henry Ford’s assembly line. Indeed, McDonald’s pioneered the assembly-line production of burgers (and other foods) and the treating of its customers as if they were on an assembly-line (especially in the later drive-throughs).

Beyond the McDonald’s “system”, the McDonald brothers created high(er) quality burgers and shakes (both eventually compromised by Kroc), finger food that did not require utensils, a self-service restaurant that kept customers moving because there were no seats, and a clean restaurant and environment that discouraged teenagers from hanging around and making a mess and lots of noise.

Kroc also quickly recognized the value of the name and of the golden arches (also created by the McDonald brothers). As depicted in the movie, he saw a similarity between those arches and church steeples and courthouse structures. In my terms, he is depicted as implicitly recognizing that he was creating a new “cathedral of consumption”.

One of the major problems with the movie is the failure to address some of the larger issues that are part of the process of “McDonaldization”. These include the broader changes that contributed greatly to McDonald’s success (the post WWII growth of automobile sales and travel, the national highway system, and the suburbs) as well as the broader changes it has wrought, especially the McDonaldization of society and of many of its institutions (schools, churches, etc.). Also missing is coverage of the many irrationalities associated with fast food chains (adverse impact on health, the environment, etc) and of McDonaldization more generally (e.g., increased homogenization), as well as even broader issues such as the globalization of the chain, its basic ideas, and its irrationalities which all played a major role in the “globalization of nothing”.

In the end, the movie focuses too much on one “demon” (Kroc), but minimizes larger demons (capitalism) and totally ignores others (the McDonaldization of society and its many irrationalities). As is true in much of the popular media and its products, The Founder individualizes and psychologizes when it needs to “sociologize”.

Woefully Little “Sharing” in the Neo-Liberal Ride-Hailing Industry

In previous posts, I have dealt with the ride-hailing company, Uber, as part of what is supposed to be a “sharing” economy, but is, in reality, a triumph of the greed and one-sidedness inherent in neo-liberalism. Two 2017 New York Times articles (January 15, 16) underscored the difficulties raised in those earlier posts and pointed to new, even more problematic outcomes. The articles dealt with Uber as well as Lyfft, Via, Juno, and Gett and their disastrous impact on the taxi industry. Declining dramatically are the number of taxicabs, trips by taxi, taxicab drivers (many of whom have switched to working for ride-hailing companies), the amount of money spent on fares, and the cost and value of the medallion needed to operate a taxi in New York. In contrast, the ride-hailing companies are growing rapidly. There are now 60,000 cars in New York City with ride-hailing apps, but only 13,000 yellow cabs.

Uber drivers tend to earn twice as much as taxi drivers. While they enjoy their higher income and being self-employed, they incur additional costs and responsibilities being on their own in a neo-liberal world. Because of the need to get high ratings from customers, there is great pressure on them to keep their newer-model cars well-maintained, clean on the outside and spic-and-span on the inside; to dress respectably; and even in some cases to provide refreshments for their passengers. These expenses, as well as the cost of automobile insurance, can eat up as much as 50% of an Uber driver’s earnings. Then, there is percentage the ride-hailing companies take off the top of a driver’s earnings.

Uber has great power over the drivers and there is little they could do when, for example, Uber raised its percentage from 10% to 25%. Since drivers are not employees, they are not entitled to a minimum wage, or sick and holiday pay. They also have little in the way of defense as Uber and the other ride-hailing companies move in the direction of driverless cars which would completely eliminate the need for drivers.

There is little sharing in the ride-hailing economy since the drivers do all of the work, pay all relevant expenses, and take on all of the responsibility. What they do share- and can ill-afford- is their relatively meagre net income with many others, especially the ride-hailing companies.

This not a defense of the traditional taxicab industry. My father was a New York City taxi driver who earned little and was ill-treated by the company that employed him. However, the neo-liberal world now in development in the ride-hailing industry- and in many other sectors of the economy- promises to be much worse. Uber is a far more powerful company- and infinitely richer- than the taxi companies of my father’s day. Uber has even less interest in those who do “gigs” than the old taxi companies had for their expendable drivers.

Donald Trump: The Ultimate Prosumer

While it is far from his worst, or even his most defining, characteristic, Donald Trump is perhaps the ultimate prosumer. This is made clear in a December 12, 2016 New York Times article (“The New TV Reality: All Trump”):  “For the next four years at least, we are living in a TV show that Mr. Trump is simultaneously starring in, consuming and live-tweeting”.

Unpacking that statement in my terms, Trump is producing his act (his creation of the performance of the starring role in his- and the current U.S.’s- life), he is consuming that act as he reportedly continually watches himself on the television “shows” (where he also seems to get much of his information about the U.S. and the world), and he is using that information in producing live-tweets in response to some of what is said on those shows (often and not incidentally about himself). His tweets increasingly lead to re-tweets and further news coverage that he is likely to consume and to which he will, when the mood hits him, produce a response.

This endless cycle of consuming-producing-consuming is a particularly good example of prosumption– the interrelated process of production and consumption. While production and consumption are separated out in the preceding paragraph to make the elements of the process clear, they are in reality tightly intertwined in that case, indeed in all cases.

While this only serves to reframe Trump’s approach, there is a critique implicit in this reframing. That is, in this case, the prosumption lens reveals an extreme example of a person’s consciousness being shaped by interaction with others. While this is true of all of us, in Trump’s case it is more an interaction mediated by television where many of the normal interaction cues are more difficult to discern or are absent. Furthermore, Trump seems obsessed with looking at the mediated version of himself, and how others see him, on television. While most of us like to look in the mirror now and again, such narcissism takes a very different and more extreme form in Trump’s case. Furthermore, millions of others are peeking into that mirror at the same time.

As largely a prosumer of himself, Trump is not only shaping his own consciousness in this way, but more worryingly shaping the consciousness of many others, to say nothing of the domestic and foreign policies of the United States.

Amazon.Go: New Heights of McDonaldization

Not that I can take any credit for it, but Amazon has unwittingly managed to wrap up much of what I have been thinking and writing about for the last three decades in one nice little material world bundle, Amazon Go. The prototype of this updated version of a convenience store now exists in Amazon’s new office building in downtown Seattle.

It is a highly McDonaldized setting in which, as in all McDonaldized settings:

  • Its operations are very efficient (e.g. no checkout lines; just “walk-through”, “grab-and-go”, and “walk out”),
  • It is calculable, with an emphasis on speed in getting through the store and offering quickly eaten finger foods
  • It is predictable, specializing in pre-prepared meals and “chef-made meal kits”
  • It makes great use of non-human technologies: smartphone apps to gain entry; sensors to keep track of what is being taken off the shelf and is purchased; automated technologies to total the purchases and to charge them to the consumer’s account. This is made necessary by the fact that few employees are likely to be present since there will be no checkout counter- a clear threat to the 3.5 million cashiers in the United States.
  • The threat to jobs is one of the irrationalities of this rational system. It will help to further reduce the number of paying jobs (using technology similar to that used in driverless cars that is costing taxi drivers their jobs) and to add to the working class discontent that helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, etc..

 

From the point of view of consumption, Amazon Go is a place (a new means of consumption, or cathedral of consumption) to which people are drawn to consume. However, it is better thought of as a place (a means of prosumption) where people go to prosume, that is, produce what they consume. Consumption is traditionally a process where others, especially employees, produce in various ways what others consume. This has declined in recent years as there are ever-fewer employees to do such work. Consumers are required do an increasing amount of that work either on their own (carrying their own trays in fast food restaurants, gathering their own food in supermarkets) or with the help of new technologies (e.g. self-checkout and check-in systems). This is especially the case in online sites and stores, including Amazon.com, where the consumer does all of the work of finding, ordering and paying for a purchase. This kind of a system is more difficult to create in a bricks-and-mortar store, but Amazon’s Go, if it is successful and widely implemented, will be an important step in that direction.

Snap’s Spectacles: Another Small Advance in the Development “Prosuming Machines”

In 2015 I published an article in the Journal of Consumer Culture on prosuming machines. Snapchat’s sunglasses fitted with a camera (“Spectacles”) are such a machine. They enter a market that was sought most recently by Google Glass. Google Glass has not been a success, but Snap’s Spectacles has been a great success initially and promises to succeed where Google Glass did not. The sunglasses are equipped with a small camera that the wearer can turn on with the tap of a button near the left temple. That permits a 10-second video of whatever one is looking at. The advance here is that rather than taking out and using a smartphone and its camera, one can video the scene without the interference of such actions; one can be more of a participant rather than merely an observer of the scene.

In other terms, Snap’s spectacles are a prosuming machine. They allow one to produce a brief video while the producer is consuming an event and, further, that the producer (and others) can consume, shortly thereafter, on his/her smartphone. However, Spectacles remain a human technology since the person wearing them must act- push that button- in order for the camera to operate. As a human technology, Spectacles represent only a small refinement in prosuming machines. They are yet another “wearable” (another example is monitoring devices worn by patients leaving the hospital) that allows one to prosume. However, they do not constitute a further step in the direction of prosuming machines that are non-human technologies. That step would require spectacles that are truly smart machines that tape whatever they- or their mini-computers- see and decide is important. Such spectacles would operate on their own consuming events and producing videos of them. An even further advance would be implantable devices that do much the same thing and intrude even less, or not at all, on the unfolding scene.

There is no question that such technologies are possible and that Snap’s spectacles, or some competitor, will soon offer them. Since they are invisible to those being videoed, such technologies would pose a far greater threat to the privacy of others than current technologies such as Spectacles. Snap is conscious of this danger since the current iteration of Spectacles lights up when a video is being shot. I suppose an insertable technology could be created that not only videos, but also lights up the videographer’s nose- a la Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer- when it is operating. That would certainly make for a more colorful world, but that should not serve to obscure the dangers associated with that world.

“Deglobalization”? Not a Chance

In a recent (November 13, 2016) New York Times essay, Ruchir Sharma argued that the lesson of globalization’s past, and of President-elect Donald Trump’s proposals that relate to globalization, “is that just as night follows day, deglobalization follows globalization- and can last as long”. This, of course, is a deterministic “grand narrative”. It is derived from generalizing from a single historical case of the great wave of globalization in the early 20th century (there were a number of other epochs, or phases, before that) and its descent into what might be termed deglobalization with the start of WWI. Determinism, grand narratives, and generalizing from a single case are all “no-nos” in contemporary sociology and most other social sciences.

A more nuanced view requires a perspective on globalization that views it as a dialectic of a series of “flows” and “barriers”. We have recently experienced a period in which the flows (of people, money, ideas, etc.) have been in increasing ascendancy over the barriers. These flows have gone through, around, under and over many different kinds of barriers (especially national borders in Europe). However, the pendulum is now swinging back in the direction of strengthening some of those barriers- and creating new ones- in at least some sectors of society and parts of the world. However, that shift should not be seen as deglobalization, but rather as an aspect of the globalization process itself. Thus, we are not undergoing a process of deglobalization, but rather we are at the early stage of another phase of the globalization process.

Sharma, Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, not only fails to see this, but he has a limited view of globalization as primarily an economic phenomenon (with a little politics thrown in). Such a narrow perspective means that he fails to see that globalization has continued apace, and even accelerated, in many other sectors of society, especially on the internet and, more generally, in the cultural, social, and intellectual realms (among many others).

We may be an era in which there is increasing interest in creating barriers in some sectors of society (e.g., trade, migration), but that is decidedly not the case in many others. Sharma, and those who adopt his perspective, need to develop a broader (especially less economistic) and less deterministic view of globalization. Yes, night does follow day (at least for the foreseeable future), but one should not leap from that to the idea that deglobalization follows globalization. There are trends, but no inevitabiities, in the social world.

“Shadow Work” and Prosumption

Shadow work is defined by Craig Lambert (Shadow Work, Counterpoint, 2015) as “all of the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations” and as work we do “outside our jobs” and “generally for some profit-making purpose”. He argues that shadow work is increasingly the norm because people are now able to accomplish tasks themselves that were formerly handled by paid workers. Almost all of Lambert’s examples are the same as those usually dealt with under the heading of prosumption (and related concepts such as co-creation). Shadow work encompasses a wide range of online tasks including online learning and taking courses on MOOCS, as well as shopping for and booking travel. Many other forms of shadow work are performed offline (e.g., using ATMs and 3-D printers; self-service in fast food restaurants, supermarkets and retail establishments; self-check-in at airports and hotels; self-monitoring of medical conditions; citizen science) that are only now possible because of increasingly sophisticated automated technologies. Lambert adds several offline examples that I hadn’t thought of before as exemplifying prosumption such as the sorting and washing we do in recycling and the fact that we perform storage and warehousing functions for Costco.

However, there are some questionable inclusions under the heading of shadow work including housework, commuting, driving kids to school and extra-curricular activities, involvement in children’s sports, coaching one’s kids and monitoring their independent coaches, and even young athletes working to get scholarships. It is not clear that these activities are done on behalf of businesses in order to enhance profits. Furthermore, even if these traditional forms meet the definition of shadow work, they are conflated with the new forms largely made possible by the computer and other new technologies.

We are poorly served by Lambert’s use of the old concept of work, even prefaced by “shadow”. Work has a productivist bias and ignores the consumption involved in all of the activities discussed under the heading of shadow work. As a result, the concept of shadow work tends to obscure what is truly new in this domain. Lambert is clearly dealing with prosumption, more specifically prosumption-as-consumption; that is the prosumption engaged in by consumers. It is increasingly the case that prosumers produce as they consume. Indeed, more and more of the work associated with consumption that was formerly performed by paid workers is now being done- without pay- by prosumers. This is the secret source of the success- and profits- of “prosumer capitalism”.

In focusing on shadow work Lambert is using one of many modern binaries (work/shadow work; work/leisure) that permeate his work and that of many others. This kind of modern thinking is increasingly outmoded and must be replaced by more contemporary post/modern thinking employing more integrative and fluid concepts. Prosumption is one such concept that allows us to think of the recent developments discussed by Lambert in a much more contemporary and edifying way.

The Selfie as a Form of Prosumption

As is the case with most recent forms of prosumption, the selfie is made possible by a series of technological innovations including cellphones, their front-facing cameras, the computer and the internet on which photos are posted, and most recently selfie-sticks. While it has long been possible to photograph oneself, that process is now infinitely easier and the photos can be disseminated more quickly and easily. Taking selfies is clearly an example of prosumption in that the producer of the photo is almost always its first, and frequently only, consumer. As a recent newspaper article points out, at the production end of the prosumption-as-consumption continuum, those who take selfies “have become their own Hollywood directors” (Kate Murphy, “What Selfie Sticks Really Tell Us About Ourselves”, New York Times- Sunday Review, August 9, 2015: 5). After the subjects have viewed (consumed) the photos of themselves, they can then engage in a range of additional acts of production such as using “body-slimming, skin-smoothing and age-defying apps” in order to improve their appearance.
Furthermore, the viewer of other’s selfies is not merely a consumer of the photos, but is also a producer in the sense, according to an art historian, that “`the viewer of the selfie is free to interpret the work not governed by the intent of the person who took it’”. While making clear the productive role played by the consumer (viewer), this is a surprising statement since such interpretation is, and has always been, the case not only in all photographs, but in art, movies, theater, symphonies, operas, and the like. The viewer of these, and of most other things, is always free to interpret them and in fact they must interpret them in order for them to be meaningful. Meaning does not come only from the prosumer-as-producer, but also from the prosumer-as-consumer as well as from the interaction between them and their interpretations.
What do we gain by thinking of selfies as a form of prosumption? For one thing, it underscores once again the utility of that concept in our technologically advanced age. For another, it allows us to compare selfies to other contemporary forms of prosumption such as blogs and writing on Facebook walls. The more examples of prosumption we have, the better we will be able to get a broader sense of the phenomenon and of the similarities and differences among its increasing, and increasingly varied and important, manifestations. We cannot truly understand the nature and significance of prosumption unless we view various contemporary manifestations through that lens. It remains the case that few can grasp the increasing importance of prosumption because they continue to operate with a dichotomous production-consumption lens rather than the far more appropriate integrative lens of prosumption.

The “Sharing” Economy, Uber, and the Triumph of Neo-Liberalism

Ride-sharing is a form of prosumption- those who are using (consuming) their cars provide (produce) rides for those in need of them. Ride-sharing can also be seen as part of the sharing (of cars in this case) economy, a collaborative system (the collaboration of those with rides to offer and those who need them), and a peer-to-peer (p2p) systems (drivers providing rides mainly to other drivers who happen to be without their cars). These ideas and systems associated with the sharing economy (another is airbnb) were, in principle, not based on a profit-making model, but were generally more communal and altruistic in nature. However, they all have, at least in part, been transformed by the entry of profit-making businesses that in the pursuit of profit are altering these systems, especially their more romantic characteristics.
Many drivers can, and do, engage in ride-sharing free of charge for altruistic and communal reasons. However, the rise of profit-making companies like Uber and Lyft that charge drivers a portion (roughly 20%) of every transaction for use of their online platforms has transformed ride-sharing into a job (at least part-time) and a profitable business. Unlike most forms of prosumption- using ATMs, scanning one’s groceries, using self-check-in kiosks at airports and hotels- the “producers” (the companies and the drivers) earn a money from the process.
These ride-sharing businesses been proliferating despite the fact that they have encountered opposition nationally, and to some degree globally, from taxicab companies and local governments. This is because their app-based system accessible via smartphone is highly attractive, especially to younger people, who can summon a car more quickly without standing on corners and hailing, sometimes fruitlessly, taxicabs. The latter characteristics make the taxicab seem old-fashioned to younger people. Thus, they are likely to continue to shift in the direction of ride-sharing, while the older generation will likely remain wedded, at least for a time to the taxi industry. However, while the taxi industry will not disappear, this generational difference suggests a long-term shift away from taxi industry and in the direction of the ride-sharing industry. While the traditional taxicab industry is being threatened, it is difficult to defend it because it has tended to be monopolistic and has successfully resisted unionization efforts. For their part, drivers are not well-paid and must deal with difficult (sometimes dangerous) work, with little in the way of job protection and benefits.
Yet, ride-sharing through Uber and similar companies is not without its problems. Uber drivers would seem to be even more powerless and difficult to unionize than traditional taxi drivers. Among other things, they work on their own, are widely dispersed and have little opportunity to come into contact with one another. This gives Uber great power to release them and to alter the percentage they earn from each ride. The income of Uber drivers is limited because unlike taxi drivers, they are not supposed to accept tips. While the income is attractive for those who now do this in their spare time, it might be less satisfactory for those who try to do it on a full-time basis
Another point worth mentioning is that unlike in paid jobs, those working for the ride-sharing business provide many of their own “means of production”. Uber does provide the crucial (and expensive) online system that supports and drives ride-sharing, but the drivers provide and maintain their own cars as well as the smartphones that connect them to the online system.
This a near-perfect neo-liberal system in which capitalist organizations earn profits while giving those who work for them relatively little and leaving them largely on their own to fend for themselves.