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.

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Exploiting the Makers

The increase in the number of makers is enabled by the fact that many people have an array of largely untapped skills; they are part of what Anderson calls the “long tail of talent” (127). New technologies both allow for the greater utilization of those talents and create a larger audience for their products. This stands in contrast to the past, and to some degree the present, model where organizations draw only on the talents of those employed in them. No matter how well an organization recruits its employees, nowhere near all of the very best people are likely to be employed in any given organization, nor are they ever likely to be.

Open-sourcing the long tail of talent opens up a whole new arena for the exploitation of makers who exist outside the confines of the organization. In Anderson’s view, this “can create an unbeatable economics for companies whose products are developed in this way” (109). All sorts of tasks- research and development, marketing, and support- can all be done free (a long-term concern of Anderson’s, see Free: The Future of a Radical Price) of charge by the makers who are part of a company’s long-tail. Of course, the free work that they perform was likely performed at one time by paid workers and the replacement of the latter creates increased unemployment. More important in this context is the fact that the makers are paid nothing, or perhaps a pittance, for their contributions. How are companies able to find, and to retain, the makers? Largely by offering them “social incentives” (109) such as elevating the best “volunteers” to “moderator status” or giving them a “`noob ninja’ badge”. Such rewards cost the company nothing, but seem to satisfy most makers. In any case, the makers are more likely to be doing what they do because they are involved in a collective effort in which they want to participate, doing things they want to do, and that will be of use to others. If that is insufficient, Anderson proposes a meager, largely, demeaning, reward hierarchy that runs from T-shirts, to coffee mugs, free hardware, a trip to a development meeting, and for a very few makers equity in the project.

Anderson proudly describes a small robotics company of which he is part owner. There are about 100 contributors to the company, but only 20 are paid employees. The rest are unpaid volunteers with some of them putting in “what in some weeks amounts to full-time work” (149). Anderson’s company earns profits and grows larger mainly because of the unpaid, and therefore heavily exploited, labor of these volunteer makers.

The makers who sell their handmade goods on Esty.com enrich that organization which in April, 2012 had 300 paid employees, sold $65 million worth of goods a month, and after only six years in existence was valued at more than 2/3rds of a billion dollars. What about the makers? Most don’t make a living on what they sell on Etsy and at least some come to the realization that their hourly pay compares poorly to those who work at McDonald’s. Anderson reassures us they are likely to be satisfied by, for example, having an audience for their products. In any case, we are supposed to be relieved to learn that while Etsy is on the road to being a billion dollar company, “it’s not about the money for most of” the makers (183).

While in the past capitalists thrived on exploiting poorly paid employees, it is now creating an even more exploited class of unpaid makers. Seemingly oblivious to the exploitation built into this system, makers are happily contributing to the emergence of a new, even more exploitative, capitalist system.

“Makers” are Better Seen as Prosumers

Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution reveals its productivist bias in both its title and subtitle. Makers is, of course, a term that is synonymous with producers. The Industrial Revolutions- both the “first” (the factories of the 1850s), and the “second” (the assembly-line of the early 20th century)- form the backdrop for, and inform, Anderson’s analysis. They represented the height of production and to this day are the source of our lingering bias toward seeing the world through the lens of production. As the title makes clear, Anderson foresees, and is a cheerleader for, a new Industrial Revolution, a revolution in (personal) production based on the computer, the Internet, and especially new technologies such as the desktop CAD, the laser cutter and the 3-D printer (which squirts liquids such as plastic rather than ink). These technologies will allow us (in collaboration with others in open-source online communities) to make more things from the bottom up by ourselves, or in shared maker-spaces, than relying on large-scale organizations to produce them for us. I think Anderson is on to something important here and we will see a dramatic shift away from enormous organizations devoted to production and toward small, even one-person, arrangements capable of producing a wide range of things on their own.

However, my focus is on Anderson’s single-minded concern with production and the ways in which that distorts his analysis. The fact is that Anderson should have known better since all of the technologies and processes of concern to him also involve consumption. Indeed, they involve more-or-less simultaneous production and consumption, or prosumption. Many of the makers of concern to Anderson had their roots, and many continue to remain, in the DIY movement. DIY is a form of prosumption since do-it-yourselfers are most often involved in producing things for their own consumption. Many of Anderson’s initial examples involve such DIY activities as making things with his grandfather, his garage band when he was in his 20s, making dollhouse furniture for his children and, of course, in various web-based activities. A good number of the DIY activities discussed throughout the book end up becoming profit-making businesses involved in prosuming for others. These are ultimately the forerunners of the small businesses that are the hope, in Anderson’s view, for saving American capitalism and its economy more generally (Ritchie S. King, “When Breakthroughs Begin at Home.” New York Times January 16, 2012).

Anderson’s productivist biases prevent him from seeing that what he is really describing is a world increasingly based on, and characterized by prosumption. Makers are, and many will continue to be, prosumers making things for themselves, as well as for those close to them. Some, perhaps many, will turn these activities into businesses, but even then they, and those they hire if and when the businesses grow, will remain prosumers as they consume raw materials, their own labor time, and so on in the process of production.

As a result, in closing Anderson offers two alternatives for the economic future for the United States and other Western countries (226). One is where things are made to be “exchange values” to be sold commercially, while the other is where things are made as “use values” for one’s own use and for the sheer pleasure of making them. Needless to say, Anderson places his bet on the former alternative. Since he, like most analysts, does not possess a clear sense, or a well-established concept, of prosumption, he is unable to see that in either alternative he is analyzing prosumption. It is prosumption that is our (once and) future reality.

A More Satisfying, Less Alienating, Future for “Makers”?

In his analysis of the makers, Anderson is focused not only on production, but also on saving American capitalism through a new class of maker-entrepreneurs. As a result, he ignores some of the other implications of the new technologies of interest to him. For example, Anderson never considers the issue of whether capitalism ought to be saved.

Unexamined is the possibility that makers and this new technologies could form the basis of a non-capitalist economy, or at least one that is different from the one we have known. In fact, Anderson makes much of the Marxian concept of the means of production and how in the future makers, rather than traditional capitalist organizations, will increasingly own (or rent) and control many of them. That is, we will see a democratization of the means of production. Such a change in the ownership, or at least control, of the means of production is precisely what Marx meant by the transition from capitalism to socialism. Wedded as he is to a capitalist model, Anderson is unable to see what may be the broader and more important implications of his work.

Anderson also misses perhaps the most important immediate implication of the change he is describing. That is, an economy dominated makers is likely to be a less alienating and more satisfying domain for those involved in it. Owning and controlling the means of production (better thought of here, and indeed in all contexts, as the means of prosumption), people will have much more, if not total, control over what they produce. They will not be alienated from those means of prosumption, the prosumption process, and that which is prosumed in that process. Furthermore, there is also the promise of the end of alienation from other people because the new technology allows others- conventionally called producers and consumers- to be actively involved in the prosumption process at all levels. In other words, perhaps the important implication of the phenomena analyzed by Anderson is the end of, or at least a diminution in, alienation whether or not capitalism is saved in the process. Indeed, this leads one to question the idea of saving capitalism since one suspects that it is a system that would find new ways to alienate the makers.