The Resilience of Capitalism and the Demise of the Sharing Economy?

Many observers, especially Alvin Toffler and, more recently, Jeremy Rifkin, have seen the rise of the prosumer and of the sharing economy (or the “collaborative commons”) as harbingers of a hoped for amelioration of the excesses of capitalism, if not as an alternative to that economic system. However, it is difficult to ignore the power, resilience and adaptability of capitalism. Two recent examples demonstrate that it may be the alternatives to it, rather than capitalism itself, which are in jeopardy.

Peer-to-peer (p2p) lending sites such as Zopa are based on prosumers lending money to one another, perhaps switching time and again between being borrowers and lenders. However, as P2P lending has grown in importance, large financial institutions have become increasingly involved. Further, their participation is not always clear to those interested in borrowing money. This institutional involvement threatens to drive out individual investors interested in lending money thereby subverting the process of prosumption that lies at the base of all P2P systems. Of course, if they know of the participation of these institutions, prosumers retain the ability to reject their offerings and to borrow only from other prosumers.

More threatening, somewhat ironically, is the rise of prosumption sites and processes which pay those involved a substantial amount of money. Examples include those who drive cars for Uber (and similar enterprises), as well as those who shop and deliver (in their own cars) groceries for Instacart. This is no longer the prosumer-dominated “sharing economy”, but rather another way of making a profit and earning a living in a capitalist economy. Instacart charges $3.99 per delivery and earns extra money by marking up the prices of grocery items by, according to one estimate, 20%. At the moment, shoppers can earn between $15 and $30 an hour depending on how quickly they deliver the food (using their own cars). As is true of Uber, the pay is good, workers don’t need college degrees, and the hours are flexible. However, there is no job security and those who do this work do so without any of the benefits of employees of companies like Peapod. Furthermore, their relatively high pay is likely to decline as more people sign up to do the work.

Indicative of the increasing incursion of capitalist interests into the sharing economy is the investment of over $1 billion in Uber and the fact that it is now valued at $17 billion. In good capitalist fashion, Uber is positioning itself to expand in various directions (e.g., global package delivery).

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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.

The Current Status of the “Arab Spring”

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 1, Page 1

The Current Status of the “Arab Spring”

The dramatic changes associated with Arab Spring that began in 2010  continue to reverberate in 2013. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, among others, are trying to create and institutionalize more democratic regimes. Other parts of the Muslim world such as Bahrain and Jordan are experiencing unrest, although significant change has yet to occur. Especially notable is the civil war that has raged in Syria since early 2011. The euphoria of the early years of Arab Spring has given way, at least for some, to worry about its negative consequences. While the deaths of tyrants like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, and the departure of others from Tunisia and Yemen, are welcome developments, those despots had managed to suppress internal differences in their countries and to exert at least some control over their borders. However, their demise and the continuing failure to replace them with strong democratic regimes have had a variety of dangerous consequences.

As a result, new areas of violence and bloodshed have arisen (including the killing of the American Ambassador to Libya in 2012), especially in the African area known as Sahel. This is a band of land that stretches across North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and lies between the desert areas to the north and the grassy plains to the south. It cuts through several troubled countries, most notably two recent and interrelated trouble spots Mali (Hagberg and Korling, 2012) and Algeria.

Mali has been experiencing for some time a low-level civil war involving the Tuareg minority in the northern part of the country, but the country was  destabilized by a coup d’etat in 2012 that overthrew the president and further weakened the government. The war in the north took on a new form and was heightened in intensity by weakened borders with neighboring Libya and the resulting influx of weapons and fighters, the existence of members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali, as well as the influx of battle-hardened militant Islamists from elsewhere in the Middle East. The Islamists began to move south conquering a vast portion of Mali and by late 2012 they threatened to take over the entire country. The French intervened militarily in Mali (their former colony) in order to prevent it from becoming a radical Islamic state.

As this was happening, radical Islamists, claiming that they were retaliating for the French incursion in Mali, invaded a gas-production complex in neighboring Algeria taking a number of hostages. Members of the Algerian security service stormed the complex and in their wake many hostages and militants were killed (Nossiter, 2013).

The events in Mali and Algeria were described by an expert on the Middle East and Africa as “the darker sides of the Arab uprisings” (Worth, 2013: A1). None of this is to indicate that the Arab Spring has been a failure, but it does demonstrate that a series of changes have been set in motion and it will take years to determine their long-term implications.

The developments in the Sahel area of North Africa reflect current thinking on globalization (see pp. 5-9), especially the increasing fluidity of global flows of many kinds. They also reflect the declining ability of structures such as national governments and borders to impede many types of flows.

References

Hagberg, Sten and Gabriella Körling, “Socio-political Turmoil in Mali: The Public Debate Following the Coup d’État on 22 March 2012.” Africa Spectrum 2-3, 2012: 111-125

Nossiter, Adam. “Algerians Find Many More Dead at Hostage Site.” New York Times January 21, 2013: A1, A8.

Worth, Robert F. “Jihadists’ Surge in North Africa Reveals Grim Side of Arab Spring.” New York Times January 20, 2013: 1, 13.

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

Blog

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 1, Pages 16-17

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

Many believe that the future of college (and even high school) education in the United States lies in the expansion of online education, especially of a new system known as “Massive Open Online Education”, or MOOCs. The definition of a MOOC is to be found in its four elements:

  • It is designed to enrol a massive number of students (early courses course have had 100,000-lus students)
  • Even though MOOCs are, at least so far, offered by traditional universities (e.g. Stanford), they are open to anyone
  • MOOCs are exist only online and accessible to anyone with a computer and able to access the Internet
  • And, of course, their main function is to educate

While some the ideas behind MOOCs are traceable to the early 1960s. The first true MOOC began in 2008, but the big breakthrough came in 2011 with three Stanford University MOOCs each enrolling more than 100,000 students and in nearly every country in the world. A corporation, Coursea, where enrollment passed two million students, late 2012) emerged out of this at Stanford and today other companies (Udacity, edX) and many other universities are eager to offer MOOCs. There is a widespread feeling that MOOCs are going to spread rapidly and in many ways dramatically alter higher education. A major driving force is the increasing costs of traditional higher education and the fact that MOOCs are able to reach a far greater number of students at much lower cost (one instructor can teach those 100,000 plus students). MOOCs also utilizes advanced modern technologies rather than traditional, and rather primitive, face-to-face interaction in small classes, or the far less personal large lectures, characteristic of traditional college education.

One MOOC begun in 2012 is an introduction to sociology taught by Professor Mitch Duneier at Princeton University and offered to about 40,000 students worldwide on Coursea (Lewin, 2012a) , along with about 200 other courses. Like all others involved in these early courses, Prof. Duneier is feeling his way through the various aspects of the course. As in most of the early MOOCs, less than 5% of the students who began the course completed it and took the final exam. However, there was lots of student involvement and Duneier found: “Within  three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I’d had in my whole teaching career” (Lewin, 2012a). Feedback came through global exchanges on an online discussion, a video chat room, as well as study groups that formed throughout the world (e.g. Katmandu, Nepal). Duneier was also delighted to find that he could discusss highly sensitive sociological topics such as the lack of public restrooms for those who sold things on the street (a topic that Duneier [2000] wrote about in a famous sociological monograph, Sidewalk).

However, there are a variety of problems associated with MOOCs beyond the fact that such a small percentage of students complete courses. One is the difficulties involved in creating a web-based course that has the production values that students are accustomed to in movies, videos and online content (although one instructor has figured out ”how to make PowerPoint dance” [Lewin, 2013: A10]). Another, is that the requirements of being a good teacher mediated by the computer and the Internet are different from those required in the classroom (and few are trained, or have any experience, in teaching in this way) and for many it will be a difficult if not impossible transition. Then there is the issue of evaluating the work of thousands, potentially many thousands of students, and the fact that this will overwhelm the instructor, even with many assistants. One of the ways this is being dealt with, and it creates many other problems, is to have the students evaluate themselves.  Yet to be determined is how students can earn degrees through MOOCs, as well as how colleges will be able to collect fees and tuition and earn profits from what will ultimately be an expensive undertaking (Lewin, 2013). In terms of the latter, venture capitalists seem to think that the money will be there since they are already investing millions in MOOCs. Finally, there is the worry that this will lead to an even more stratified educational system. On the one hand, students in less developed countries, and in community colleges and lower-tier colleges and universities in the United States, will be exposed to elite educators and courses thereby democratizing education and reducing inequality in education. On the other hand, those in less developed countries and lower-tier educational institutions will be increasingly, if not totally, reliant on MOOCs and similar modes of delivering mass education (e.g., Udemy which allows professors to put their own courses online). In contrast, students in developed countries, especially in their elite universities, will continue to get highly expensive and more effective face-to-face education.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of Future Could be Come One, Come All.” New York Times November 19, 2012:

Lewin, Tamar. “Students Rush to Web Classes, But Profits May be Much Later.” New York Times January 7, 2013: A1, A10.

Violence against Women in India

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 10, Page 375

Violence against Women in India

Violence against women, especially rape, is a global problem, but the case of a 23 year-old Indian woman who died as a result of a horrific gang rape in New Delhi in December, 2012 galvanized India and much of the world. This was not an isolated case nor is it restricted to New Delhi. For example, in what was apparently a well-planned attack just a month later in the north Indian state on Punjab, a woman was assaulted after accepting a motorcycle ride from the driver of a bus on which she had been riding. He took her to a nearby village where she was raped by repeatedly by six men, including the driver, the bus conductor and four other men (Timmons and Kumar, 2013).

The New Delhi case was particularly outrageous and brutal. A 23-year-old female medical student and a male friend had seen a movie and were seeking a ride when a bus pulled over, they were waved on board, and were charged 36 cents each. However, the bus was not a public but a private bus, although the couple was fooled into believing that it was a public bus. Six men, including the driver and another posing as a conductor, were out for a joy ride on the bus. Soon after the bus departed, the harassment of the woman began and her companion was beaten with a metal rod. The woman was then repeatedly raped by the men and she was penetrated by the metal rod as the bus circled the city. Eventually, the naked couple was dumped by the side of a highway on the outskirts of the city (Mandhana and Trivedi, 2012). The woman survived for almost 2 weeks but then died as a result of internal injuries.

The case aroused global indignation and public protests in India. It also brought attention to a broader pattern of murder and other forms of violence against women in India including killings over dowry disputes, sexual violence, family disputes, and discriminatory treatment of both infant girls and elderly women (Harris 2013). Sexual harassment is common and rape is a daily occurrence in New Delhi. In fact, New Delhi experiences nearly two rapes a day. One woman who lived in New Delhi for 24 years described the ways in which her life had been affected while living in New Delhi:

As a teenager, I learned to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it, and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest, refusing to make eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder-first, and avoided leaving the house after dark except in a private car…I wore clothes that were two sizes too large…The steady thrum of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street…To make their demands clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by…In my office…at the doctor’s office, even at a house party- I couldn’t escape the intimidation (Faleiro, 2013).

While this violence against women has a long history in India, as well as in many other places in the world, some believe that is has been fueled in recent years by the progress of women in Indian societies and the resulting hostility of males who blame their failures on the success of women (Harris, 2013).

The New Delhi rape has attracted global attention and spurred protests and demonstrations in India (Timmons and Gottipati, 2012). It remains to be seen whether anything changes; whether Indian women will be less subject to rape and other forms of sexual violence and harassment.

Faleiro, Sonia. “The Unspeakable Truth About Rape in India” New York Times January 1, 2013.

Harris, Gardiner. “India’s New Focus on Rape Shows Only the Surface of Women’s Perils.” New York Times January 13, 2013.

Mandhana, Niharika and Anjani Trivedi. “Indians Outraged Over Rape on Moving Bus in New Delhi.”  New York Times India Ink December 18, 2012.

Timmons, Heather and Sruthi Gottipati. “Indian Women March: `That Girl Could Have Been Any of Us”. New York Times December 30, 2012.

Timmons, Heather and Hari Kumar. “Indian Woman is Gang-Raped after Bus Ride.” New York Times India Ink January 13, 2013.

Extreme Weather around the World

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 14, Page 585

 Extreme Weather around the World

An overwhelming body of scientific research over a long period of time and covering many parts of the world shows that the global climate has changed and that it is likely to change even more dramatically in the foreseeable future (National Research Council, 2011). As a result, the vast majority of scientists believe that we are in the early stages of global warming that is going to lead to a number of different kinds of weather extremes in various parts of the world (Field, 2012). These extremes, as well as climate change in general, are likely to have increasingly negative effects on life throughout the world. The impact is going to vary in different parts of the world, but in many the effect is going to be negative if not catastrophic. Those who doubt this, and are dubious about global warming, were likely shocked by the extreme weather patterns throughout much of the world in 2012 and which continued into early 2013. While these could have been aberrations, they are consistent with various weather extremes that have occurred for decades, especially throughout the first decade of the 21st century. It is likely that these extremes foreshadow what we can expect in the future. Among them are the following (Lyall, 2013):

  • 2012 was the hottest year in the recorded history in the United States
  • Rio de Janeiro reached a temperature of 109.8 degrees in late 2012- the highest since records began in 1915; the heat wave continued in Brazil into 2013
  • The same was true of a heat wave in Australia which followed two of its wettest years in its history; 2013 began in Sydney with the first days of the year being among its 20 hottest days in recorded history; since the 1950s every decade in Australia has been hotter than the preceding one
  • At the same time, the Middle East experienced extreme cold which brought, among many other stunning weather events, a highly unusual storm dumping eight inches of snow on Jerusalem
  • Extreme cold gripped Siberia and China, among other places
  • The northeastern coast of United States was struck by a devastating hurricane that wreaked havoc on many areas, especially New York City and the Jersey shore
  • England has a had a variety of weather extremes with 2012 being the wettest year in its history resulting in, among other things, floods in various places; London experienced unusually heavy snowfall in early 2013

A resident of England summed up the feelings of many in the country, as well as in many other parts of the world, about these new weather realities: “’We don’t expect extremes. We don’t expect it to be like this’” (Lyall, 2013: A10). It seems clear that in the future we will all need to learn to expect the unexpected as far as weather is concerned as well as the need to learn how to deal with it as best we can. Of course, what we most need to do is to change the various ways in which humans are serving as the major cause of these climate changes.

References:

Field, Christopher. Testimony of Christopher B. Field before

United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

on Update on the Latest Climate Change Science.

Washington, DC, August 2012.

Lyall, Sarah. “Heat, Flood or Icy Cold, Extreme Weather Rages Worldwide.” New York Times January 11, 2013: A4, A10.

National Research Council. America’s Climate Choices. National Academies Press, Washington DC., 2011.

Are You a Digital Drone?

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

Are You a Digital Drone?

Most people, especially young people, view the Internet as a “playground” and much of what they do their as fun; as an enjoyable leisure-time activity. There is, however, an alternative perspective on this. While you might not see yourself in this way, there are those in sociology and other fields who are coming to look at much of the Internet as a “factory” and what you do there as a form of labor or work (Scholz, 2013). From the latter perspective, you are seen as spending hours every day slaving away on such tasks as updating your Facebook page and checking recent additions to other’s pages or detailing your most recent fashion choices on Pinterest. To some observers, you seem to resmble worker-bees tirelessly toiling away at a never-ending series of tasks.

In addition to thinking about what you do on the Internet as a fun, leisure-time activity, you might also see it as a series of tasks that you perform largely for yourself. They therefore seem to stand in contrast to traditional occupational activities in which you are working for others and in the process enhancing their interests while gaining little for yourself except for the pay involved. However, many critics now view what you do on the computer as very much like such work since you are often working for others and in the process making them wealthier. However, one important difference is that you are not working for a wage; on the internet you are usually engaging in “free labor”; you are working for nothing (Terranova, 2013).

For example, when you write product reviews for Amazon.com you are enhancing the value of that site and the company; you are working for them and you are not being paid for that work. Similarly, you work for Facebook, again for nothing, when you indicate your various likes and dislikes, especially for commercial products. More troubling is the much greater amount of such work that you do even though you are unaware of doing it. Google, for example, uses various data-mining techniques (web crawlers, personalized algorithmns) to track all of many things that you click on (Ross, 2013). The results are used to determine the kinds of advertisements that appear on your computer screen. Google earns money, lots of money, from those advertisers.

To put it baldly, the value of these computer-based businesses is based largely on the “work”- those clicks and likes- that you do for them free of charge. In a capitalist world you ought to be paid by all of them, but of course you are not paid. From the perspective of the critics of capitalism, you are being exploited by firms such as Google and Facebook (Fuchs, 2013). In fact, you are being exploited more than the paid workers in the capitalist system. Most of them are being paid relatively little, but you are paid nothing at all. Low paid work often yields great profits, but work that is unpaid leads to an even higher rate of profit. As a result, Google earns huge profits with a comparatively small workforce and while Facebook is not yet nearly as profitable, it has a market value of $100 billion even though it only has about two thousand paid employees.

While you might regard sites such as Facebook and Pinterest as playgrounds, you might feel a bit different about them, and perhaps behave differently, if you also thought about them as modern-day factories and yourself as unpaid drones slaving away on those sites for the benefit of their corporate owners.

References

Fuchs, Christian. “Class and Exploitation on the Internet.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 211-224.

Scholz, Trebor, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013.

Ross, Andrew. “In Search of the Lost Paycheck.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 13-32.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor”. In Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 33-57.

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

Blog

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

                It will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid McDonaldization on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In fact, we can expect a far higher level of McDonaldization on MOOCs than in a variety of traditional educational settings that are, themselves, increasingly highly McDonaldized. Why?

For one thing, while it is possible to invent each MOOC class anew every semester, there will be a strong tendency to develop a script that can be reused, perhaps modified slightly, each year. To provide predictability in the evaluation of students, detailed “rubrics”, or standardized scoring systems, will be created, provided to students, and used to evaluate them. The more standardized and detailed the rubric, the less room for unpredictability, for creativity, on the part of both students and teachers. MOOCs will tend to be prepackaged systems with a series of short segments (often no more 8-12 minutes of lecture), embedded questions, and immediate (albeit automatic) feedback. In addition, as MOOC classes evolve, they are going to require higher and higher production values to rival those in the movies, TV or Internet performances of one kind or another. Once corporations invest serious amounts of money in techniques to improve the quality of MOOCs, there will be a strong interest in using those courses over and over in order to maximize the return on investment. Furthermore, MOOC classes are likely to be videotaped, or otherwise recorded, so that each class can be repeated semester after semester. Even if this were to be resisted at the major universities (e.g., Stanford) and by the academic stars most likely, at least at the present, to teach these classes, the classes would still be taped so that they could be used, probably for a charge, at lesser colleges and universities. This would be highly predictable with each academic setting that uses the prerecorded classes getting exactly the same content. While some interactive elements could be added to any prerecorded class, it would not even have the limited spontaneity of live MOOC classes.

The efficiency of many McDonaldized systems, including MOOCs, is heightened by substituting non-human for human technology. In the case of MOOCs, this is especially clear in the need to use computer-graded exams rather than more subjective essay exams graded by instructors. Efficiency is also increased in McDonaldized systems by “putting customers to work” rather than having the work done by paid employees (Ritzer, 2013). Obviously, it is more efficient from the point of view of workers, and cheaper from the perspective of the system that employs them, to have unpaid customers do such work. In the case of education in general, and MOOCs especially, there is a strong tendency to have the “customers” in the educational system, the students, do work performed by teachers in other contexts. For example, it is impossible for instructors to respond to thousands of online comments and questions. Instead, through the use of “crowd-sourcing”, students may be allowed to vote up or down on each question and comment. Based on student voting, instructors can focus on those issues that are considered important by the crowd; rather than the instructor, the class does the work of deciding what’s important (Lewin, 2012).  After the video presentation of a lecture, much of the educational process is left to the students either on their own or through in-person or online groups and other forms of interaction. The best example of this is the grading process. In classes of 100,000 students, or more, instructors, no matter how many assistants they might have, are not going to be able to do the grading. Thus, much of the grading is left up to the students themselves. Each student’s exam or paper might be read by, say, five other students with the student’s grade being the average of the five evaluations.

MOOCs tend to limit, if not eliminate, the processes that might serve to make education less McDonaldized. In his work on British education, Wilkinson (2010) argues, following up on some of my ideas (Ritzer, 2010), that the way to do this is to focus on the everyday, face-to-face, activities of teaching rather than developing large-scale systems- like MOOCs- to create a meaningful educational experience. As Wilkinson (2010: 157) puts it, the answer lies in finding ways of ”making ‘excellence’ enjoyable, engaging and rewarding for both children and education workers”. In my view, solution lies in focusing on “everyday activities of education making them not only the center of concern but where the true spectacle of education- excellent teachers finding new and exciting ways to educate students- is to be found” (Ritzer, 2010: 149). The problem with MOOCs from this perspective is that they move in exactly the opposite- and wrong- direction in focusing on creating a new system of education rather than working within the traditional system of everyday face-to-face education where excellent teachers engage with students in collectively finding what works for a specific issue at any given moment. MOOCs lack that direct contact and when classes are prerecorded there is little or no possibility for creative mutual engagement between teacher and student.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of the Future Could Be Come One, Come All”. New York Times November 19, 2012.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society 7th, 20th Anniversary Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Ritzer, George, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Wilkinson, Gary. “McSchools for McWorld? Mediating Global Pressures With a McDonaldizing Education Policy Response.” In George Ritzer, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013: 149-157.

Makers: The Promise of “Something” Rather than “Nothing”

In the Globalization of Nothing2 I have distinguished between nothing and something. Nothing is any social form, in this case a product (such as a Big Mac or an IKEA book case), that is centrally conceived, centrally controlled and lacking in distinctive content. Something is a form (such as a meal cooked at home from scratch) that is locally conceived, locally controlled, and rich in distinctive content. While our world is increasingly dominated by nothing, the increasing number and importance of the makers makes likely a significant increase in products that can be characterized as something.

Anderson makes this clear in arguing that the makers are producing, and will produce, things that cannot be purchased at the world’s leading purveyor of nothing- Wal-Mart. Furthermore, they are things that can’t be mass-produced in China or other low-wage countries. Indeed, Anderson sees hope for the American economy in the future in the makers and their production, in my terms, of something.

Anderson argues that the makers will serve a “mass market for niche products” (77). Large numbers of makers will produce niche products in relatively small numbers, at least in comparison to those that are mass produced. Because so many people will be involved in this as prosumers, it will constitute a mass market, albeit one that is quite different from today’s mass markets. The best current example of what Anderson has in mind is Etsy.com which specializes in offering handmade items, or “real stuff from real people, not packaged culture from companies” (182).

In a world increasingly awash in nothing, makers promise at least a modest increase in something.

Using Games to Motivate Makers

Allowing and even using games to motivate paid workers has a long tradition (see Donald Roy’s [1960] famous paper on “banana time”). Such games are used to motivate poorly paid workers to continue to work in monotonous jobs. Makers generally do not perform what they consider to be monotonous work and they are not poorly paid- in the main they are paid nothing at all. While most seem to get a great deal of satisfaction from what they do, the capitalist organizations for which they labor as part of the long tail of talent still feel the need to motivate them in various ways, including through the use of games. It is important that organizations keep makers, with their gift of free labor, happy.

For example, Quirky is a web-based company that uses the crowd of makers to “develop better products” (179) and based on these contributions it puts two new products a week into production. Each new Quirky product involves inputs from hundreds of makers. Unlike many other similar systems, the inventor might earn thousands of dollars. Furthermore, everyone involved gets paid although in most cases “it’s just pennies” (180). The process involves a variety of steps- submitting ideas, voting and commenting on those ideas and later the designs, having a say in product names, etc.. Countdown clocks and competitions are employed throughout the process with the result that the entire process “feels like a game” (180).

Similarly, Kickstarter is a web-based system of crowdfunding that is “fun” and has “made a game out of raising money” (174). Deadlines are set, minimum funding levels are defined and if they are not met the project is canceled, various thank-you gifts are offered at different levels of giving, etc. For their efforts and money, investors do not expect a financial return, but rather the new product promised by the project or even just “the emotional reward of knowing that they had something to do with bringing that product into existence” (173).

As in the case of earlier factory workers, fun and games are used to keep the noses of the makers to the grindstone.