“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.

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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.

You, Yes You, Cause Unemployment

As a prosumer (one who more-or-less simultaneously produces and consumes), you cause others to lose their jobs- or not to get one in the first place- when you bus your own trash at McDonald’s, cart home and put together IKEA furniture, use an ATM, scan your food at Safeway, and use electronic kiosks to check in at airports and hotels. In those and many other ways and settings you are increasingly doing work that in the past others did as part of their jobs. Further, you are doing that work for no pay making it impossible for paid employees to compete with you, even if, as is likely, they earn the minimum wage, or close to it.

However, your contribution to the uncomfortably high unemployment rate has grown astronomically in recent years with the growth of the Internet, especially what has been termed Web 2.0. What distinguishes Web 2.0 sites is that instead of site content being produced largely by those who work for the sites, the content is produced mainly by the users of the sites. On such Internet sites as eBay, Amazon.com, Wikipedia, Facebook, and YouTube, those who produce much if not all of the content are also the users (consumers) of that content. Relatively few people work for such Internet sites. Instead, you do the work and you do it free of charge. The same is true of blogs, of course, which have put many journalists out of work. While prosumption does create some paid, even highly paid, jobs on the Web, it undoubtedly leads to a great decline in paid work overall.

This is certainly not the only cause of unemployment, but it is a cause that has received little or no attention from journalists or scholars. The blame for increased unemployment is usually placed on impersonal processes such as technological change (including the Internet and those who dominate it) and automation, offshore outsourcing, the growth of manufacturing elsewhere in the world (especially China), and the inability to compete with the low wages offered there. To the degree that you have been blamed for unemployment, it is likely for having not purchased American-made products (where available) and, instead, having bought those produced overseas by foreign rather than American workers.

While all of these causes- and others- are important contributors to heightened unemployment in the United States, the increasing amount of unpaid labor performed both off- and on-line is costing many people their livelihoods. There are no hard data on this, but it seems obvious all of the unpaid “work” we do these days as prosumers means that paid workers are being laid off or are not being hired in the first place. Why retain or hire workers, when hordes of prosumers are willing, even eager, to do the work free of charge?

If the secret of high capitalism was paying workers less, usually far less, than the value of they what produced, one of the well-kept secrets of late capitalism is paying prosumers nothing for their production. The magic of high capitalism was to be found in the gap between what manufacturers charged for their products and what those who actually produced them- the workers- were paid for their labor. Late capitalism is a far more magical place, at least for capitalists, because the prosumers work for nothing. Instead of a great deal (of products, profits, and so on) emanating from very little (in terms of wages), even more is now being created out of thin air; out of nothing (at least in terms of wages). Further, prosumers do it gladly, even happily- none of that alienation associated with workers and no nasty problems such as absenteeism, goldbricking, and striking.

In this new, magical world of late capitalism it is you, the seemingly innocent, even well-meaning, prosumer, who is an increasingly significant cause of unemployment. What to do? To paraphrase Marx, “Prosumers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but labor that that you would find alienating if it was part of a full-time job.. and that costs many others their paying jobs.”

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.

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).