No, No, Corporations are Responsible for Increasing Prosumption and Growing Unemployment

While people, in the role as prosumers, certainly are a cause of unemployment, focusing only, or even mainly, on their role in this is a form of “blaming the victim”. The fact is that it is various organizations, especially profit-making businesses, that have systematically, and at an accelerating rate, replaced paid employees with unpaid prosumers. It is simply a no-brainer for a company to create systems that lead prosumers to perform what had been paid labor. Once prosumers have been led in that direction, it is much easier for companies to coerce them into doing that work, often by leaving them little, and in some cases no, choice.

Consider the self-checkout lines at supermarkets. This is a clear case of prosumption with prosumers not only shopping (a form of labor) for their food, but also being asked to do the work of the checkout person and the bagger, to say nothing of the old-time grocer who actually retrieved food items for consumers. Grocers have long since all but disappeared being replaced, at least in part, by workers who stock supermarket shelves and prosumers who retrieve their own food. We are now witnessing a similar decline in checkout persons and baggers as prosumers take on their work in addition to that of the grocer.

When they were first introduced, self-checkout lanes were one-off experiments standing alongside much more numerous traditional checkout lanes. People were lured to the new-fangled checkout system by the novelty of the new technology as well as their growing interest in doing, and their increasing ability to do, things on their own. The latter, of course, was largely traceable to operating on one’s own on the increasingly omnipresent Internet. Over time, and as people grew increasingly comfortable with the self-checkout system, more and more lanes were devoted to it with the result that there were fewer alternatives to self-checkout lanes and the dwindling number of them were often over-crowded. This, in turn, drove even more people to the self-checkout lanes. The result is that using a self-checkout lane has become less of an option and increasingly a necessity.

In other cases, there is no alternative to being a prosumer; to being both a consumer and performing the labor once handled by paid workers. There are no waiters and buspersons in fast food restaurants. If one chooses to eat there, one must do the labor performed by such workers at traditional restaurants.

However, the most interesting examples come from the newer settings that are set up from the get-go to force people to be prosumers. For example, if people choose to shop at Amazon.com, they must prosume because there are no paid employees present to do the work for them. It is true that employees created the Amazon system and maintain it, and that the system does a good deal of the work for prosumers, but they are on their own when making a purchase on Amazon.com. In this case, it isn’t that prosumers replace paid workers; they never existed in the first place. Rather such locales, and they are increasingly the norm, are created from inception to rely on the unpaid labor of prosumers rather than the paid work of employees.

Better to blame the companies that institute systems that lead, even force, people to be prosumers than to blame prosumers who increasingly have little choice in the matter.

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Crowdsourcing and Prosumption

One recent example of crowdsourcing- found on the travel search site Flightfox– points up the close relationship between crowdsourcing and prosumption. While some members of Flightfox’s “crowd” of 900 “experts” may be traditional producers (e.g. 20 % of the experts are travel agents), the vast majority are likely to be prosumers. To be chosen as a prosumer by Flightfox, experts one must have demonstrated the ability to find low fares.

Flightfox “uses a contest format to come up with the best fare that the crowd- all Flightfox-approved users- can find” (Stross, 2011: 3). Once a contest to find the lowest fare for a given itinerary is posted, the crowd is invited to find and submit the lowest fare. The member of the crowd who comes up with the lowest fare gets 75% of Flightfox’s fee for that itinerary. Flightfox employees do no work on any given contest, although work was/is involved in setting up and maintaining its computerized system. The winner of the “contest” does a great deal of work and is rewarded, but many others do as much work, or more, for no reward at all. Not only are they not paid for their work, but it spurs on all involved, including the eventual winner, to work that much harder in order to have a chance at winning.

In fact, the crowd does work that involves far more variables than could be built into an affordable computer program. As the co-founder of Flightfox says, “`There are too many variables for it to be economically feasible to build an algorithm that covers every aspect of travel” (Stross, 2011: 3). Thus the crowd not only works hard, but it functions better than available computer programs. Thus Flightfox needs the members of the crowd, but it could never afford to hire the 900 of them and pay them a living wage.

Flightfox sees itself as having “commercialized” what “flight hackers” do normally and very much enjoy doing- hunting for low fares. Also part of the crowd is travelers looking for ways to finance their travel. The problem is that on any given search, only one member of the crowd benefits economically (and then quite modestly- 75% of a finder’s fee that ranges from $34 to $59). The many “losers” work for nothing (except, perhaps, for the joy of the hunt, the competition, and in this case the success of Flightfox). This system only works for the commercializing entity when all but one (or a few) of the crowd works for nothing.

In light of the exploitative nature of this relationship, Stross (2011: 3) comes to a truly astounding conclusion: ”It’s most heartening to see that in the domain of travel planning, humans still manage to hold their own. Every contest concluded at Flightfox is a small win for the species.” In strong contrast, my view is that yes, it is nice that humans, at least collectively, show that they can do things computers cannot do. However, the big winner here is Flightfox which has a crowd of prosumers working for it for no pay and contributing to its bottom line. As in most cases of commercialized prosumption, it is the capitalistic organization that is the big winner.

Stross, Randall. “”The Lowest Fare? Ask the Crowd.” New York Times September 30, 20ll: 3.

Bruns is also concerned with the way business adapts to groups of produsers (what he calls the “hive”). Produsers are used in crowdsourcing to serve the early needs of business, but later the business can “feed” (through recognition), help (provide services), harbor (host), harness (use the results obtained and offer recognition), harvest (use what is produced and add value), and hijack (lock in the produsers in such a way that the business profits) the hive. Exploitation does not play a prominent role in Bruns’s analysis except in the hijacking of the hive, but it is a major issue to students of prosumption (Fuchs,  200  ; Rey, forthcoming).

New Cathedral of Consumption

The last half of the twentieth century was characterized by the rise of- to use a concept I coined- “cathedrals of consumption” such as shopping malls, mega-malls, big-box stores, and the like. However, in the 21st century these consumption sites are all showing signs of distress (e.g. dead or increasingly vacant malls). There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important and most likely to increase in significance is the growth of online cathedrals of consumption led, of course, by Amazon.com. While it is not a material space like the classic cathedrals of consumption, its virtual space is, like its forerunners, spectacular, in the Guy DeBord’s sense of the term.

Amazon’s spectacle is derived from an unlimited virtual space, the seemingly endless array of products that can be offered and purchased there, its ease of use (one need not physically travel to the site), and the speed with which an order can be placed and received by express delivery. In fact, Amazon has set as its goal the same day delivery of at least some orders.

But this is in many ways a different kind of spectacle than that offered at the classic brick and mortar cathedrals of consumption.Until such time as we have computers that can grind out material products in our homes, there remains a need for material structures from which  orders can delivered. To this end Amazon.com has created huge- in one case million-square foot- warehouses already in existence in Nevada and Arizona and soon to be built in several other locations. The spectacle here, as in most cathedrals of consumption, is the sheer size of the site and the many things on offer there.

However, there is an important difference. While classic cathedrals of consumption offered spectacles to enchant themselves in order to attract droves of consumers, no customers are drawn to Amazon’s warehouses. Therefore, these warehouses do not need to conceal from consumers (since none will find their way there) what classic cathedrals of consumption had to hide- the rational, especially efficient, systems that lay at their core. The spectacle of the warehouse is not created with the consumer in mind, but with the ways it will interface with other elements of a highly integrated and efficient system that includes the website, the warehouse, express delivery companies, truckers, and most importantly airports and airplanes. In fact, as is already the case with the distribution centers for FedEx and UPS, Amazon’s warehouses could become the center of the aerotropoli of the future. These are cities built around massive airports (instead of the old system of building airports in the middle of, or near, major cities) with the focus on efficiently moving products and people around the globe.

The sheer size of a brick and mortar cathedral of consumption like Wal-Mart makes it obvious to the consumer that it is highly rationalized. However the immaterial nature of a website like that of Amazon.com, as well as the fact that no customers will ever see or visit its huge materialized warehouses, makes it easier to conceal the rational system at Amazon’s core. This, in turn, makes it seem more magical, more enchanted than material cathedrals of consumption and therefore highly attractive to consumers; an irresistible lure.