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”.

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.

“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.

E-Games and Prosumption

People have long played e- (or virtual) games, especially those involving many players. They have traditionally consumed multi-player games by buying them and by observing the actions of others playing them. Of course, they also produced them by creating the action that is the game. That is, people have always prosumed of e-games. These games are an example of playbor, a phenomenon with much in common with prosumption, because those involved labor as they play.
Many throughout the world continue to play e-games; in fact, the numbers involved are growing rapidly. However, the games are rapidly becoming mass spectator sports with millions of online viewers, thousands of others viewing the games in person at sports arenas, and millions of dollars in prize money. A major on-line site for these games is Twitch. The coming of age of these games was heralded by Amazon.com’s recent $1.1 billion purchase of Twitch, which had 55 million visitors in July, 2014 (Wingfield, 2014a).
While gamers were always prosumers, the consumption aspect of the process was dominant at first as they purchased computers, internet time, games and products associated with many games. While that is still true for gamers, some are now more involved in producing games, often as members of teams and for prize money. Others consume these games either online at home or in a stadium with thousands of other fans. The most successful of these gamers are earning large sums of money.
Prosumption is key to the profitability of these games and why Amazon.com was willing to pay over a billion dollars for Twitch. The secret of Twitch’s success is “because it supplies its own content and audience, comparable to an oven that produces its own food” (Carr, 2014: B5). In other words, the consumers (audience) of these games are also their producers.This is made clear by the creator of Minecraft: “’No fake doors that don’t lead anywhere, no trees you can’t cut down, and no made-up story being told to the player to motivate them…Instead, the player would make their own story, and interact with the game world, decide for themselves what they want to do’.” (Wingfield, 2014b)
It is clearly the most avid of the consumers who eventually become producers of these games for others to consume. Furthermore, even the most successful producers of today’s games must continually consume the actions taken by competitors in a game and, more generally, the entire gaming environment.
As in many cases of prosumption, it is the prosumers who do the vast majority of the work involved in production and consumption while owners of sites such as Twitch reap most of the economic benefit. Twitch succeeded because it invested the money needed to provide the infrastructure and huge bandwidth needed by those involved in multiplayer games, the major competitions, and the commentators on them. The audience flocks on its own to the site to provide the content. The vast majority of those who do so earn little or nothing for their efforts.

Carr, David. “Amazon’s Bet on Content, In a Hub for Gamers.” New York Times September 1, 2014: B1, B5.

Wingfield, Nick. “Virtual Games Draw Real Crowds and Big Money.” New York Times August 31, 2014a: 1, 13.

Wingfield, Nick. “In Games Like Minecraft, Tech Giants See More Than Fun.” New York Times September 11, 2014: A1, B2.

Wingfield, Nick. “Virtual Games Draw Real Crowds and Big Money.” New York Times August 31, 2014: 1, 13.

Customer Service or Disservice?

Consumer Reports (September, 2014) offered a revealing analysis of the accelerating trend toward customer self-service, or one aspect of what, in my terms, is “prosumption as consumption”. Customers who engage in self-service are, by definition, producing as they consume. To its credit, Consumer Reports makes no bones about why self-service has been embraced so enthusiastically. The reason? “To save money”. For example, if customers themselves place an online order, the cost to the company is pennies, while ordering from a live agent could cost between $2 and $10. In most cases, the corporations involved do not pass the savings on to customers in the form of lower prices. When multiplied by thousands, if not millions, of transactions, such savings mean much greater corporate profits. While such cost savings and profits have long been possible, they have been greatly increased in recent years by new digital technologies and by consumers who are not only familiar with them, but greatly prefer using them to interacting with paid employees.
Why do consumers do this work without pay or economic gain of any kind? Among the reasons offered by Consumer Reports are consumers’ feelings of empowerment, the ability to handle transactions more quickly, and the possibility of avoiding contact with employees who are increasingly likely to be less than stellar in their work. In fact, because corporations much prefer self-service customers, they are likely to hire fewer workers of lesser ability, to offer little training, and to accept marginal performance of the job. While many customers are cognizant of the incapacities of service workers, they generally seem unaware of many of the costs of self-service such as the loss of human contact, the paid jobs that are lost because they are willing to work for no pay, and the dehumanization of their relationships with corporations.
Because of the increasing acceptance of self-service by consumers, some corporations have taken the outrageous step- with nary a peep from consumers- of charging them fees for handling tasks the corporations used to perform without charge. Among the examples are airlines charging customers $50 for a paper ticket, $25 for having the audacity to make a reservation by phone, $20 for asking for a receipt for an e-ticket, and a $10 fee for having a boarding pass printed out by an agent. Fees such as these are likely to increase in price and to proliferate in number and variety in the coming years thereby further increasing the costs to consumers and profits for the companies.
Profit-making organizations have discovered that they can increase their profits by cutting personnel costs and by exploiting consumers to an ever-greater degree. There are many more customers than employees to exploit, they accept their exploitation meekly and, indeed, they often embrace it eagerly. This system greatly reduces the possibility of class consciousness among the declining number of employees who are ever-more fearful of losing their jobs. Worse, the system can operate without fear of the development of class consciousness among consumers who are too diverse and self-interested to think of themselves as a class, to become a class, and to act as a class. As much as one might like to hear it, we are not likely to hear consumers utter the clarion call- “Consumers of the world unite, you’ve nothing to lose but your iPad”.

McDonaldization without McDonald’s?

McDonaldization without McDonald’s?

In its key U.S. market, McDonald’s sales and customer visits were down in the first half of 2014 and they were flat globally. That, in itself, is not terribly worrying to the company since such declines have occurred before and McDonald’s has always roared back. However, a recent survey in ConsumerReports (August, 2014) makes those declines much more worrisome for the company. A survey of the dining experiences of over 32,000 subscribers to the magazine showed that of 21ranked burger chains, McDonald’s was tied for last with Burger King. McDonald’s, like Burger King, had a score of 71. This compared very unfavorably to the top-ranked chain, In-N-Out Burger, with a score of 88. While McDonald’s customers were satisfied, they were not nearly as satisfied as the customers of all the other burger chains (except Burger King). McDonald’s also ranked last when customers were asked to rate burgers on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the least delicious burgers they have ever eaten and 10 being the most delicious. McDonald’s burgers got a score of 5.8 (the next lowest was 6.6 for Jack in the Box) compared to the best score (8.3) at The Habit Burger (In-N-Out Burger was 2nd with a 8.0 score). Overall, the mass burger chains, those that are the most McDonaldized, tended to rank toward the bottom in both ratings. The same can be said other kinds of chains. Of the chicken chains KFC was at the bottom in terms of the taste of its chicken and the same was true among the Mexican chains of Taco Bell and the taste of its burritos.
McDonald’s (as well as the other mass chains) is in no immediate danger, but these data should lead us to wonder about its long-term future. Other retail giants have fallen in the past (e.g., Woolworth’s, Montgomery Wards) and still others are presently in danger of collapse (e.g. Sears). There will come day when McDonald’s falls, but given its global power and its public relations skill, such a collapse will not occur any time soon. Similarly, these developments do not spell the end of the process of McDonaldization. However, it may well be that McDonald’s position as the paradigm of that process is being undermined leaving us with the possibility of a new paradigm (In-N-Out Burger?). In that case, the lack of fit between the paradigm and process would be awkward, but whatever the new paradigm, it would still be highly McDonaldized.
One of In-N-Out Burger’s great advantages is the higher quality associated with using fresh hamburgers rather than the frozen burgers of McDonald’s and other large chains. The calculability dimension of McDonaldization points to the tendency to emphasize quantity rather than quality. More frozen burgers can easily be stored, shipped, cooked and served than fresh burgers. However these quantitative gains come at the cost of lower quality. In the end, a high degree of McDonaldization brings with it the tendency toward mediocrity. Thus, McDonald’s may be done in by the very process that bears its name, but that is not to say that chains like In-N-Out Burger (as well as others like Chipotle) are not McDonaldized. They are simply less McDonaldized in some ways and on some dimensions that give them various advantages over the most McDonaldized systems. The success of these somewhat less McDonaldized chains promises to reduce, but certainly not eliminate, the irrationalities of rationality (e.g., the tendency toward mediocrity) associated with McDonaldization.