It’s Time to Pay Digital Prosumers for the Data They Now Provide Free of Charge

A recent New York Times article made the case that users- prosumers- provide highly valuable information to internet sites such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.com. That information is currently worth $1,000 per user, an amount that will rise rapidly in the coming years. The argument is made that these companies, as well as the data brokerages (with current revenue of $150 billion a year) that purchase and sell such data, ought to be taxed. While this a radical suggestion, at least as far as those who run these companies are concerned, it does not go nearly far enough. If we are willing to say that these companies should be taxed for this information, a far more consequential change would involve actually paying prosumers for the information they now provide, consciously and unconsciously, free of charge.

Hidden from view is the fact that the vast success and wealth of Google, Facebook, Amazon.com, and other companies of their ilk are largely based on the free labor provided by prosumers. As things now stand, prosumers are even more exploited than the workers in traditional capitalist businesses. Such workers have generally been paid as little as possible (the fast food industry is a notable example), but those prosumers who “work” on these online sites receive no pay at all. They are expected to be satisfied with rewards such as the ease of ordering products online and of maintaining contact with, and being informed about the lives of, family and friends. This just not enough!

After all, those at the top of these digital businesses are billionaires many times over largely because of this free labor. (Admittedly, these entrepreneurs deserve to be rewarded for their ideas and for the infrastructure they provide online prosumers that allows them to consume and produce). In thinking about paying prosumers, consider how much it would cost these digital businesses to hire traditional market researchers to collect and compile all of these data. In fact, given the vast and rapidly growing amount of data, it would be impossible for them to do at any price.

Digital businesses are getting an incomparable gift from their users. It is time for them to offer economic rewards to these prosumers commensurate with their contributions to the corporate bottom line.

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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.