Makers: The Promise of “Something” Rather than “Nothing”

In the Globalization of Nothing2 I have distinguished between nothing and something. Nothing is any social form, in this case a product (such as a Big Mac or an IKEA book case), that is centrally conceived, centrally controlled and lacking in distinctive content. Something is a form (such as a meal cooked at home from scratch) that is locally conceived, locally controlled, and rich in distinctive content. While our world is increasingly dominated by nothing, the increasing number and importance of the makers makes likely a significant increase in products that can be characterized as something.

Anderson makes this clear in arguing that the makers are producing, and will produce, things that cannot be purchased at the world’s leading purveyor of nothing- Wal-Mart. Furthermore, they are things that can’t be mass-produced in China or other low-wage countries. Indeed, Anderson sees hope for the American economy in the future in the makers and their production, in my terms, of something.

Anderson argues that the makers will serve a “mass market for niche products” (77). Large numbers of makers will produce niche products in relatively small numbers, at least in comparison to those that are mass produced. Because so many people will be involved in this as prosumers, it will constitute a mass market, albeit one that is quite different from today’s mass markets. The best current example of what Anderson has in mind is which specializes in offering handmade items, or “real stuff from real people, not packaged culture from companies” (182).

In a world increasingly awash in nothing, makers promise at least a modest increase in something.


Using Games to Motivate Makers

Allowing and even using games to motivate paid workers has a long tradition (see Donald Roy’s [1960] famous paper on “banana time”). Such games are used to motivate poorly paid workers to continue to work in monotonous jobs. Makers generally do not perform what they consider to be monotonous work and they are not poorly paid- in the main they are paid nothing at all. While most seem to get a great deal of satisfaction from what they do, the capitalist organizations for which they labor as part of the long tail of talent still feel the need to motivate them in various ways, including through the use of games. It is important that organizations keep makers, with their gift of free labor, happy.

For example, Quirky is a web-based company that uses the crowd of makers to “develop better products” (179) and based on these contributions it puts two new products a week into production. Each new Quirky product involves inputs from hundreds of makers. Unlike many other similar systems, the inventor might earn thousands of dollars. Furthermore, everyone involved gets paid although in most cases “it’s just pennies” (180). The process involves a variety of steps- submitting ideas, voting and commenting on those ideas and later the designs, having a say in product names, etc.. Countdown clocks and competitions are employed throughout the process with the result that the entire process “feels like a game” (180).

Similarly, Kickstarter is a web-based system of crowdfunding that is “fun” and has “made a game out of raising money” (174). Deadlines are set, minimum funding levels are defined and if they are not met the project is canceled, various thank-you gifts are offered at different levels of giving, etc. For their efforts and money, investors do not expect a financial return, but rather the new product promised by the project or even just “the emotional reward of knowing that they had something to do with bringing that product into existence” (173).

As in the case of earlier factory workers, fun and games are used to keep the noses of the makers to the grindstone.

Exploiting the Makers

The increase in the number of makers is enabled by the fact that many people have an array of largely untapped skills; they are part of what Anderson calls the “long tail of talent” (127). New technologies both allow for the greater utilization of those talents and create a larger audience for their products. This stands in contrast to the past, and to some degree the present, model where organizations draw only on the talents of those employed in them. No matter how well an organization recruits its employees, nowhere near all of the very best people are likely to be employed in any given organization, nor are they ever likely to be.

Open-sourcing the long tail of talent opens up a whole new arena for the exploitation of makers who exist outside the confines of the organization. In Anderson’s view, this “can create an unbeatable economics for companies whose products are developed in this way” (109). All sorts of tasks- research and development, marketing, and support- can all be done free (a long-term concern of Anderson’s, see Free: The Future of a Radical Price) of charge by the makers who are part of a company’s long-tail. Of course, the free work that they perform was likely performed at one time by paid workers and the replacement of the latter creates increased unemployment. More important in this context is the fact that the makers are paid nothing, or perhaps a pittance, for their contributions. How are companies able to find, and to retain, the makers? Largely by offering them “social incentives” (109) such as elevating the best “volunteers” to “moderator status” or giving them a “`noob ninja’ badge”. Such rewards cost the company nothing, but seem to satisfy most makers. In any case, the makers are more likely to be doing what they do because they are involved in a collective effort in which they want to participate, doing things they want to do, and that will be of use to others. If that is insufficient, Anderson proposes a meager, largely, demeaning, reward hierarchy that runs from T-shirts, to coffee mugs, free hardware, a trip to a development meeting, and for a very few makers equity in the project.

Anderson proudly describes a small robotics company of which he is part owner. There are about 100 contributors to the company, but only 20 are paid employees. The rest are unpaid volunteers with some of them putting in “what in some weeks amounts to full-time work” (149). Anderson’s company earns profits and grows larger mainly because of the unpaid, and therefore heavily exploited, labor of these volunteer makers.

The makers who sell their handmade goods on enrich that organization which in April, 2012 had 300 paid employees, sold $65 million worth of goods a month, and after only six years in existence was valued at more than 2/3rds of a billion dollars. What about the makers? Most don’t make a living on what they sell on Etsy and at least some come to the realization that their hourly pay compares poorly to those who work at McDonald’s. Anderson reassures us they are likely to be satisfied by, for example, having an audience for their products. In any case, we are supposed to be relieved to learn that while Etsy is on the road to being a billion dollar company, “it’s not about the money for most of” the makers (183).

While in the past capitalists thrived on exploiting poorly paid employees, it is now creating an even more exploited class of unpaid makers. Seemingly oblivious to the exploitation built into this system, makers are happily contributing to the emergence of a new, even more exploitative, capitalist system.

The Internet Through a Postmodern Lens

This blog is derived from a plenary talk given in 2011 at the first Theorizing the Web conference at the University of Maryland. This seems an opportune time to raise the issues once again because they seem more relevant than ever. In addition they are offered here in anticipation of the third Theorizing the Web conference scheduled for early 2013 at the City University of New York.

Our understanding of the Internet, social networking, and the role of the prosumer in them is greatly enhanced by analyzing them through the lens of a number of ideas associated with postmodern theory.

There is, for example, the argument that the goal in any conversation, including those that characterize science, is not to find the “truth” but simply to keep the conversation going. The Internet is a site of such conversations. It is a world in which there is rarely, if ever, an answer, a conclusion, a finished product, a truth. Instead, there are lots of ongoing conversations and many new ideas and insights. Prime examples of this on the Internet include wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular, blogs and social networking sites. Google’s index is continually evolving and a complete iteration online content is impossible. All such sites involve open-ended processes that admit of no final conclusion.

Postmodernists tend to decenter whatever they analyze and to focus on the periphery. One searches in vain for the center of the Internet or of social networking sites. They are multi-faceted and always in the process of being made. As a result, even if a center could be found (and it can’t), it would immediately change. The idea of the “long tail” reflects this kind of decentering. Instead of focusing on a few “hits”, blockbusters, or best sellers, the long tail involves an emphasis on the infinitely larger number of phenomena (e.g. books, music productions) that are part of the long tail.

The work of Jean Baudrillard offers a treasure trove of ideas that are very useful in thinking about the Internet and Web 2.0. Implosion involves a contraction, a telescoping, a collapse of opposing poles in on one another. The digitality of phenomena makes them much more amenable to implosion. The possibilities for implosion in the digital world are endless. There are no physical barriers to limit, at least for very long, implosion in that world. It is this, of course, that lies at the heart of the ability to remix and mashup sound, photos, text and much else on the Internet.

Then there is the idea of simulations and the argument that we live in “the age of simulation”. Simulations are copies, even copies of copies. This idea of copies is particularly relevant in the Internet age which is a world of perfect copies without limit. The fact that copies are both unlimited and perfect (e.g. through file-sharing) makes the possibility of creating simulations on the Internet greater than ever before.

Simulations are not only copies, but they are also fakes. It is arguable that web-based locales bring the age of simulation to perhaps its highest point thus far. This is epitomized by the Sims and Second Life, as well as other artificial life simulations and games of various sorts. There are few, if any, material realities that restrict the ability to create simulations in these worlds. Indeed, there is nothing in these worlds but simulations.

The hyperreal is more real than real; more beautiful than beautiful; truer than true. It is beyond reality in every way. The Internet involves sites that are more real than comparable sites in the material world. has infinitely more books on sale than a bricks-and-mortar book stores and no parking lot based flea market can compare to the offerings on eBay. Hyperreal sex is available on many sites on the Internet. Remixes and mashups of photographs, videos, and the like are well-suited to producing pornographic images that are more real than real.

Ultimately, we can be seen as living in a fractal age where things proliferate endlessly and expand like a virus or a cancer.  There is no goal other than endless proliferation. The Internet is legendarily viral with all sorts of texts and images, as well as viruses and spam, proliferating endlessly.

An interesting idea in this context is the strength of the weak. In this case the weak are the individual users of the Internet and social networking sites. Their strength comes from the fact that their voices, while weak individually, become powerful when they are combined. Thus, for example, sites on the Internet that users visit individually can, when taken together, rise to the top when links are analyzed by Google’s algorithms. More dramatically, as in the Arab Spring, powerless individuals can come together, for example via Facebook and Twitter, and form a powerful revolutionary group.

The postmodern world is obscene since everything is made visible, broadcast, and so forth. The Internet is obscene because it is characterized by endless information and communication as well as never-ending social commentary,

Baudrillard’s most important anticipation of the current reality lies in his notion of symbolic exchange which involves the general and reversible processes of giving and receiving. This anticipates Chris Anderson’s world of the free, especially on the Internet. Those involved in the free world of the Internet offer gifts- additions to a Wikipedia entry, sharing a file, adding code to Linux, etc. In return, they receive various gifts including the knowledge Wikipedia has to offer, files from others, and the use of Linux. This symbolic exchange is not limited to a specific exchange of goods, but is rather continuous and unlimited.

The postmodern ideas employed here, and many others, are ideally suited to an analysis of the Internet and social networking. In fact, in many cases they seem to be more applicable today than they did when they were first created decades ago. In many ways, postmodern social theory can be said to have anticipated today’s (and even more tomorrow’s) realities and to have provided us with a toolkit full of concepts to analyze that world.

Of course, we should not be satisfied with extant concepts. Rather, we should relate them to new realities in order to help us create a set of new concepts and theories that will not only help us today, but will, hopefully, put us in a better position to analyze coming changes on the Internet and in social networking.

“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.