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.

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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.