The Rise of the Prosuming Machines

The Decline of the Prosumer and the Rise of Smart Prosuming Machines

The concepts of prosumption (the interrelated process of consumption and production) and the prosumer were introduced by Alvin Toffler over three decades ago. However, it took years for scholars in various fields to begin to understand the importance of these phenomena. Now that increasing attention is being devoted to them, they are already beginning to be supplemented, even superseded, by smart prosuming machines. Just as we have discovered the importance of human prosumers, they are declining in importance in the face of the rise of these prosuming machines. While many of these technologies are, or will be, very familiar, what is unique is viewing them through the lens of prosumption. Their increasing importance adds to the view that we have in been error in focusing on either production or consumption, or to in dealing with them separately. All processes that we usually think of in these ways are better thought of as prosumption.

Of course, much of prosumption, or at least some aspects of it, has long been automated and been involved with at least rudimentary smart machines. For example, while a human actor is needed to set a smart machine such as an ATM in motion, once the process begins it proceeds automatically. Similarly, a person is required to order a product on Amazon.com, but much of the rest of the process occurs automatically. A wave of the foot under the rear bumper causes the rear hatch of the Ford Escape to open. Various companies and agencies are registering and accumulating online keystrokes. Prosumers are producing those keystrokes perhaps with the goal of prosuming something such as an Amazon.com product or a Facebook page. However, once those keys have been struck, the electrical impulses are likely to flow into all sorts of data bases to be used automatically on the basis of various algorithms. In other words, a series of automated processes are unknowingly begun by agential prosumers who quickly lose control over them as well as of the data they provide unconsciously. These and many other types of prosumption involve smart technology, but they require agents consciously choosing to set the process in motion.

Of primary interest here is the emergence of smart prosuming machines that increasingly operate on their own without human intervention. The following is a preliminary list of such machines:

One’s smartphone is, unbeknownst to most, collecting (consuming) data on one’s location and transmitting (producing) that data, at least anonymously, to computers that collect it all as an element of “big data”. Google Glass and other wearable technologies (e.g., smartwatches) have the potential to prosume an enormous variety of information.

Foursquare is one of several smartphone apps that will produce an alert for one’s “friends” on one’s location, as well as indicate information on that location to those friends who are able to consume it. In this sense, Foursquare, as well the smartphone on which it is downloaded, are prosuming machines that perform the tasks of finding one’s location, narrowcasting it, and finding the locations of others without any overt actions (other than downloading the app and carrying the smartphone) by the human prosumer.

Instead of producing money to the pay the toll needed to consume more miles on a toll road, e-tolls allow people to glide by or through toll-taking areas and have the charge debited electronically to their accounts. This is made possible by advanced technology at toll areas and transponders in cars. On some roads no humans work in toll-taking areas. Thus, drivers who do not have the correct change will automatically be ticketed. Transponders also allow cars, as well as types of vehicles subject to different charges, to be identified automatically.

The automatic payment of tolls may soon involve cars that drive themselves. Google is developing and testing such automobiles. In today’s cars, the human driver constantly consumes all sorts of relevant information (speed, road conditions, nearby cars) and uses that information to produce a variety of actions (slow down, veer around other cars). Those actions lead to additional acts of consumption leading, in turn, to yet other acts of production. In fact, there are already sensing devices in many of today’s automobiles (e.g. hybrids) that consume some of that information and automatically cause the automobile to make various adjustments. In that sense, today’s cars are, at least in part, prosuming machines. However, in order to drive themselves and avoid mishaps, tomorrow’s automobiles must, of necessity, become much more complex and effective prosuming machines.

Universal product codes (UPCs) make the work of supermarket checkout personnel and shelf stockers easier, but they have the potential to dramatically alter the nature of prosumption. For example, instead of unloading products to be scanned at the checkout counter, the UPCs associated with those products can be read directly by the computer as one checks out. Alternatively, the shopping cart can be equipped with a transponder that reads the UPCs during the process of shopping. The final bill can be tabulated automatically and be ready for shoppers as they leave the store or it can be e-mailed to them.

Patients can be released from the hospital with wearable monitoring devices that consume information on vital signs and notify hospital computers and/or personnel that something is awry. Thus instead of patients prosuming this information (by, for example, taking their own blood pressure) it is prosumed by the monitoring device. We can expect many innovations in this area in the future. For example, Google is working on contact lenses that monitor the glucose levels of diabetics. Soon-to-be released versions of iPhones (and iPads) are said to include a new app, Healthbook, which will gather health-related data, and could collect and report data on heart rate and blood pressure. With additional sensors it could do the same for blood sugar levels and the like.
While drugstore computers are already handling the process of refills automatically (eliminating or reducing the need for actions by prosumers), it is also likely that we will see pill bottles equipped with sensors that sense that medication refills are needed and transmit (produce) the order for refills to the drugstore.

3-D printers consume information (for example, blueprints), as well as raw materials (for example, plastics), and use them to produce automatically an increasingly wide variety of end-products.

Robots already prosume and, in the future, will possess a much greater capacity to prosume. One that is already in existence is the Los Angeles Times’ quakebot, an algorithm that springs into action when the U.S. Geological Survey sends out an alert. It extracts (consumes) relevant data and plugs (produces) the data into an extant template. A human editor is still required to determine whether or not to publish the information.

This list can already be extended significantly and many more examples will be added in relatively short order. While they will individually and collectively get great attention for a variety of reasons, it is important to see them as involved in prosumption and not, as they are likely to be seen, as examples of production or consumption. More importantly, they are part of a larger trend away from a world thought as being dominated by production and/or consumption to one that is increasingly dominated by prosumption.

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MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

Blog

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 1, Pages 16-17

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

Many believe that the future of college (and even high school) education in the United States lies in the expansion of online education, especially of a new system known as “Massive Open Online Education”, or MOOCs. The definition of a MOOC is to be found in its four elements:

  • It is designed to enrol a massive number of students (early courses course have had 100,000-lus students)
  • Even though MOOCs are, at least so far, offered by traditional universities (e.g. Stanford), they are open to anyone
  • MOOCs are exist only online and accessible to anyone with a computer and able to access the Internet
  • And, of course, their main function is to educate

While some the ideas behind MOOCs are traceable to the early 1960s. The first true MOOC began in 2008, but the big breakthrough came in 2011 with three Stanford University MOOCs each enrolling more than 100,000 students and in nearly every country in the world. A corporation, Coursea, where enrollment passed two million students, late 2012) emerged out of this at Stanford and today other companies (Udacity, edX) and many other universities are eager to offer MOOCs. There is a widespread feeling that MOOCs are going to spread rapidly and in many ways dramatically alter higher education. A major driving force is the increasing costs of traditional higher education and the fact that MOOCs are able to reach a far greater number of students at much lower cost (one instructor can teach those 100,000 plus students). MOOCs also utilizes advanced modern technologies rather than traditional, and rather primitive, face-to-face interaction in small classes, or the far less personal large lectures, characteristic of traditional college education.

One MOOC begun in 2012 is an introduction to sociology taught by Professor Mitch Duneier at Princeton University and offered to about 40,000 students worldwide on Coursea (Lewin, 2012a) , along with about 200 other courses. Like all others involved in these early courses, Prof. Duneier is feeling his way through the various aspects of the course. As in most of the early MOOCs, less than 5% of the students who began the course completed it and took the final exam. However, there was lots of student involvement and Duneier found: “Within  three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I’d had in my whole teaching career” (Lewin, 2012a). Feedback came through global exchanges on an online discussion, a video chat room, as well as study groups that formed throughout the world (e.g. Katmandu, Nepal). Duneier was also delighted to find that he could discusss highly sensitive sociological topics such as the lack of public restrooms for those who sold things on the street (a topic that Duneier [2000] wrote about in a famous sociological monograph, Sidewalk).

However, there are a variety of problems associated with MOOCs beyond the fact that such a small percentage of students complete courses. One is the difficulties involved in creating a web-based course that has the production values that students are accustomed to in movies, videos and online content (although one instructor has figured out ”how to make PowerPoint dance” [Lewin, 2013: A10]). Another, is that the requirements of being a good teacher mediated by the computer and the Internet are different from those required in the classroom (and few are trained, or have any experience, in teaching in this way) and for many it will be a difficult if not impossible transition. Then there is the issue of evaluating the work of thousands, potentially many thousands of students, and the fact that this will overwhelm the instructor, even with many assistants. One of the ways this is being dealt with, and it creates many other problems, is to have the students evaluate themselves.  Yet to be determined is how students can earn degrees through MOOCs, as well as how colleges will be able to collect fees and tuition and earn profits from what will ultimately be an expensive undertaking (Lewin, 2013). In terms of the latter, venture capitalists seem to think that the money will be there since they are already investing millions in MOOCs. Finally, there is the worry that this will lead to an even more stratified educational system. On the one hand, students in less developed countries, and in community colleges and lower-tier colleges and universities in the United States, will be exposed to elite educators and courses thereby democratizing education and reducing inequality in education. On the other hand, those in less developed countries and lower-tier educational institutions will be increasingly, if not totally, reliant on MOOCs and similar modes of delivering mass education (e.g., Udemy which allows professors to put their own courses online). In contrast, students in developed countries, especially in their elite universities, will continue to get highly expensive and more effective face-to-face education.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of Future Could be Come One, Come All.” New York Times November 19, 2012:

Lewin, Tamar. “Students Rush to Web Classes, But Profits May be Much Later.” New York Times January 7, 2013: A1, A10.

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

Blog

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

                It will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid McDonaldization on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In fact, we can expect a far higher level of McDonaldization on MOOCs than in a variety of traditional educational settings that are, themselves, increasingly highly McDonaldized. Why?

For one thing, while it is possible to invent each MOOC class anew every semester, there will be a strong tendency to develop a script that can be reused, perhaps modified slightly, each year. To provide predictability in the evaluation of students, detailed “rubrics”, or standardized scoring systems, will be created, provided to students, and used to evaluate them. The more standardized and detailed the rubric, the less room for unpredictability, for creativity, on the part of both students and teachers. MOOCs will tend to be prepackaged systems with a series of short segments (often no more 8-12 minutes of lecture), embedded questions, and immediate (albeit automatic) feedback. In addition, as MOOC classes evolve, they are going to require higher and higher production values to rival those in the movies, TV or Internet performances of one kind or another. Once corporations invest serious amounts of money in techniques to improve the quality of MOOCs, there will be a strong interest in using those courses over and over in order to maximize the return on investment. Furthermore, MOOC classes are likely to be videotaped, or otherwise recorded, so that each class can be repeated semester after semester. Even if this were to be resisted at the major universities (e.g., Stanford) and by the academic stars most likely, at least at the present, to teach these classes, the classes would still be taped so that they could be used, probably for a charge, at lesser colleges and universities. This would be highly predictable with each academic setting that uses the prerecorded classes getting exactly the same content. While some interactive elements could be added to any prerecorded class, it would not even have the limited spontaneity of live MOOC classes.

The efficiency of many McDonaldized systems, including MOOCs, is heightened by substituting non-human for human technology. In the case of MOOCs, this is especially clear in the need to use computer-graded exams rather than more subjective essay exams graded by instructors. Efficiency is also increased in McDonaldized systems by “putting customers to work” rather than having the work done by paid employees (Ritzer, 2013). Obviously, it is more efficient from the point of view of workers, and cheaper from the perspective of the system that employs them, to have unpaid customers do such work. In the case of education in general, and MOOCs especially, there is a strong tendency to have the “customers” in the educational system, the students, do work performed by teachers in other contexts. For example, it is impossible for instructors to respond to thousands of online comments and questions. Instead, through the use of “crowd-sourcing”, students may be allowed to vote up or down on each question and comment. Based on student voting, instructors can focus on those issues that are considered important by the crowd; rather than the instructor, the class does the work of deciding what’s important (Lewin, 2012).  After the video presentation of a lecture, much of the educational process is left to the students either on their own or through in-person or online groups and other forms of interaction. The best example of this is the grading process. In classes of 100,000 students, or more, instructors, no matter how many assistants they might have, are not going to be able to do the grading. Thus, much of the grading is left up to the students themselves. Each student’s exam or paper might be read by, say, five other students with the student’s grade being the average of the five evaluations.

MOOCs tend to limit, if not eliminate, the processes that might serve to make education less McDonaldized. In his work on British education, Wilkinson (2010) argues, following up on some of my ideas (Ritzer, 2010), that the way to do this is to focus on the everyday, face-to-face, activities of teaching rather than developing large-scale systems- like MOOCs- to create a meaningful educational experience. As Wilkinson (2010: 157) puts it, the answer lies in finding ways of ”making ‘excellence’ enjoyable, engaging and rewarding for both children and education workers”. In my view, solution lies in focusing on “everyday activities of education making them not only the center of concern but where the true spectacle of education- excellent teachers finding new and exciting ways to educate students- is to be found” (Ritzer, 2010: 149). The problem with MOOCs from this perspective is that they move in exactly the opposite- and wrong- direction in focusing on creating a new system of education rather than working within the traditional system of everyday face-to-face education where excellent teachers engage with students in collectively finding what works for a specific issue at any given moment. MOOCs lack that direct contact and when classes are prerecorded there is little or no possibility for creative mutual engagement between teacher and student.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of the Future Could Be Come One, Come All”. New York Times November 19, 2012.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society 7th, 20th Anniversary Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Ritzer, George, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Wilkinson, Gary. “McSchools for McWorld? Mediating Global Pressures With a McDonaldizing Education Policy Response.” In George Ritzer, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013: 149-157.