Prosumption: Contemporary Capitalism and the “New” Prosumer
Abstract and Keywords
While prosumption (the interrelated process of production and consumption) is a primal process and has always been ubiquitous, we have entered a revolutionary “new world” of prosumption in both the material, and especially the digital, world. Prosumption is conceived of as a continuum ranging from prosumption-as-production (usually thought of as “production”) to prosumption-as-consumption (usually seen as “consumption”). It is associated with a new stage of capitalism—prosumer capitalism—that has increasingly come to control the process and to exploit prosumers. Key to the new world of prosumer capitalism is a new, extreme, and more “magical” form of exploitation—“synergistically double exploitation.”
This chapter deals with the process of prosumption as well as those—prosumers—who engage in it. Although we have always been prosumers, the main focus here will be on the “new” prosumer who has emerged, largely in the last three decades, at least in part as a result of technological changes, especially the ever-increasing importance of the digital world. While that technological change is crucial, it, like others, has mainly occurred in the context of, and been pushed by an array of, capitalist interests. Although this chapter will address how consumption can be seen as emancipatory (Dusi 2017), it will begin with the dominant pattern. Using and exploiting largely unpaid new prosumers (Terranova 2013; Zwick 2015), rather than (or in addition to) paid employees, is a way to reduce labor costs and thereby increase the profitability of capitalist firms. As a result, it is argued that we are witnessing the emergence of a new economic form—prosumer capitalism (O’Neil and Fraysee 2015; Ritzer 2015b).
The nature of prosumer capitalism will be discussed, as will the reasons why we need yet another label for capitalism to supplement, or replace, such well-known modifiers as competitive (Marx 1932/1964) and monopoly (Baran and Sweezy 1966) capitalism, as well as those that reflect more recent developments such as digital (Fuchs and Mosco 2017; Wajcman 2014) and platform capitalism (Langley and Leyshon 2017; Srnicek 2016).
While we lack space to discuss them, it is important to note the emergence in various fields of a spate of ideas and concepts similar in many ways to prosumption. They include the produser (Bruns 2008), co-creation (Prahalad and Ramaswamy 2004), service-dominant logic (Vargo and Lusch 2004), etc., amateur do-it-yourselfers (Fox 2014; Watson and Shove 2008), craft consumers (Campbell 2005), Pro-Ams (Leadbeter and Miller 2004), an active audience (Hall 1980; Jenkins 2013; Laestadius and Wahl 2017; Smythe 1977), the creation of “factory without walls” (Hardt and Negri 2000; Lazzarato 1996; Negri 1989/2005), and brand creation (Arvidsson 2005). All of these ideas seek to overcome the modern tendency to think in binary terms, especially about the economy, and to offer new ideas that are more dialectical and more integrative (Humphreys and Grayson 2008; Ritzer 1981).
Prosumption involves “the interrelationship of production and consumption where it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish one from the other” (Ritzer 2015a:413–414). While the conceptual binary of production and consumption has a long history, prosumption is a relatively new term, coined by Alvin Toffler (1980) less than four decades ago. However, the concept was largely ignored until the twenty-first century when interest in the idea and the process boomed (e.g., Rifkin 2015; Fox 2016, especially in recent handbook entries such as this one, as well as Bruns 2016; Gajjala, Dillon, and Anarbaeva 2017; and Ritzer 2017). The dramatic increase in interest in the concept is traceable to developments online (e.g., blogs, Amazon.com, etc.) as well as in the brick-and-mortar world (e.g., the fast-food restaurant), which made it abundantly obvious that people are engaging in processes that integrated production and consumption. Within the scholarly world that revival in a wide range of fields (e.g., energy use; see Throndsen et al. 2017) is largely traceable to Ritzer and Jurgenson’s (2010; see also Humphreys and Grayson 2008) highly influential and heavily cited essay on prosumption, especially in the digital world.
Unlike the inherently integrative nature of the concept of prosumption, production and consumption have generally been seen as concepts that deal with processes that are quite distinct from one another. However, that duality is one of the many unfortunate byproducts of the modern tendency to think in binary terms. From the vantage point of the growing literature on prosumption, it is clear that production and consumption should both be seen as specific forms of prosumption. What we have traditionally thought of as production requires at least some consumption (e.g., of raw materials and labor time). Similarly, consumption involves production of such things as needs and desires, as well as, increasingly, the work needed to be able to obtain goods and services in shopping venues as diverse as fast food restaurants and online shopping sites.
Production always and in all settings involves consumption (Marx, among others, acknowledges this but does not emphasize it; see following); and, conversely, consumption always and in all settings involves production (this is particularly clear in various works on communication, media, and the key role played by the audience—including fans; Jenkins 2013), as well as in other areas such as the production of the meaning of brands by consumers. In other words, prosumption has always encompassed both production and consumption. There is no such thing as either pure production (without at least some consumption) or pure consumption (without at least some production); the two processes always interpenetrate. This is the case whichever one—production or consumption—seems to predominate in any particular setting and at any given point in history (e.g., production in the eighteenth century Industrial Revolution and consumption in the post-WWII Consumer Revolution; Cohen 2003). Although they did not have the concept until recently, sociologists, social theorists, and other students of (p. 77) society and the media have always focused, albeit unknowingly, on prosumption. At best, production and consumption should have been treated as special limiting cases, as “ideal types,” that do not exist in the “real world” but may be useful in helping to analyze that world. However, even that accords too much importance to production and consumption since, from the point of view of this discussion, they are merely types, albeit extreme types, of prosumption.
Had analysts operated with this perspective, they would have been able to develop a more sensitive indicator of the degree to which social processes, as well as entire societies, were (or were not) moving more toward either end of prosumption continuum (see following). Rather than thinking in terms of production and consumption, we should think—we should have always thought—in terms of prosumption, more specifically of “prosumption-as-production” (what we have traditionally thought of as production) and “prosumption-as-consumption” (traditionally thought of as consumption, or more recently as “consumer work”; Dujarier 2016; Rieder and Voss 2010). These concepts constitute the two ends of the prosumption continuum that lies at the base of this analysis (see Figure 3.1). The “middle” of that continuum is where “prosumption-as-production” and “prosumption-as-consumption” are more or less evenly weighted: where “balanced” forms of prosumption exist. An example of the latter would be placing (producing) an order on Amazon.com to buy and use (consume) a product (especially one that is digital such as an e-book or an Audible book). Such an orientation would have prevented social thinkers from erring wildly by, for example, thinking purely in terms of either production or consumption or in labeling epochs either producer or consumer eras. The fact is that all economic processes and epochs always involve a mix of production and consumption. In that sense, “pure” production and “pure” consumption are impossibilities.
In general, the prosumption that takes place on digital, especially social media, sites lies toward the middle of this continuum; little that takes place there can be mistaken for anything approaching prosumption-as-production or prosumption-as-consumption. We are more likely to find behavior approaching these polar alternatives in the material, bricks-and-mortar, world we usually associate with consumption. Prosumption-as-production predominates in, for example, organizations usually seen as focused on production and work (factories, offices), while prosumption-as-consumption continues to occur in organizations (malls, fast food restaurants) devoted to consumption. However, more balanced forms of prosumption are increasingly found in all organizations. An especially good example is IKEA where people are clearly engaged in a mix of consumption and production (e.g., purchasing a bookcase and putting it together at home).
(p. 78) Compare this typology of prosumption with that developed by Dusi (2017). He enumerates five types of prosumption, the first three of which tend to be exploitative and last two as more empowering: collaboration in product development, customer self-service, digital prosumption, bricolage (e.g., DIY, craft consumption), and collaborative peer-to-peer prosumption. This is a useful start, but more, especially more systematic, work on a typology of prosumption is needed. Most troubling is the fact that Dusi focuses almost exclusively on the prosumption-as-consumption end of the continuum; a full typology would need to deal with the whole continuum, especially types of prosumption-as-production as well the more balanced forms of prosumption.
While it is a relatively new concept, prosumption is the most basic, primal, human condition. The importance of that process is increasingly clear today, but it should have been even clearer in the case of the earliest human beings for whom production and consumption were rarely, if ever, distinct processes. Rather, they almost always prosumed: that is, they produced as they consumed and they consumed as they produced, or the processes were at least closely associated in form and temporally. Making much the same argument, Bruns (2008:326), focusing on the media, argued that what he calls “produsage” and what this chapter deems prosumption is consistent with “the social processes of preindustrial communities.” In many ways, then, prosumption on social media sites (and elsewhere) can be seen as a return to a premodern state before modernists drew a clear distinction between production and consumption.
Early on in the history of academic work on prosumption, limited awareness of the concept and the process of prosumption led to the unfortunate notion of a “prosumer movement” (Kotler 1986). It was never a movement because that would have required that those involved—the prosumers—have a sense of a common interest or cause. It probably would have been more accurate to describe it as a prosumer revolution. However, if it is a revolution, it is an odd sort of revolution since as a process, prosumption has always been with us. It is, as was pointed out previously, primal (Ritzer 2014).
In reality, it is not prosumption that is revolutionary. Rather, it is the relatively recent creation of the new means of prosumption that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for people not to prosume. Another way to put this is the fact that the means of production (Marx 1867/1967), and especially the means of consumption (Ritzer 2010), have been transformed in such way that there are few, if any, “pure” means of production (or producers) and means of consumption (or consumers). Both types of settings are increasingly dominated by prosumers, and it is increasingly necessary for them to prosume, rather than to simply produce or consume, in them. Even if they do not want to prosume, they are forced to be “working consumers” (a type of prosumer, as is the “consuming worker”) by bricks-and-mortar sites such as supermarkets and fast-food restaurants and especially digital sites such as Amazon.com and ebay.com.
An interesting new example of a means-of-prosumption is Amazon Go, a highly automated convenience store in Seattle, Washington. It makes great use of non-human technologies (Ritzer 2018) made necessary by the fact that few employees are likely to be present; there is not even a checkout counter, let alone employees to staff it. The prosumers’ smartphone apps allow them to gain entry into the store. Once in the (p. 79) store, sensors keep track of them and their smartphone apps, as well as the products they take off the shelf and purchase.
Automated technologies total the purchases and charge them to the consumer’s account. The prosumers and technologies—their own and Amazon Go’s—do all the work. The technologies are what I have called “prosuming machines” (Ritzer 2015a). Prosumers and these prosuming machines constitute a profound threat to, among others, the 3.5 million cashiers (workers, producers) in the United States.
As is clear in the case of Amazon Go, being forced to be a new prosumer is especially true at the consumption end (p-a-c) of the production-consumption continuum. There was a time when p-a-cs could rely on workers (prosumers-as-producers; p-a-ps) to handle the work needed in the consumption process. Among many other examples, grocers, green grocers, butchers, and bakers retrieved our purchases for us. Instead, we now go to supermarkets and wander the aisles retrieving such goods ourselves. The situation is far more extreme on Internet consumption sites where p-a-cs are almost completely on their own; there are no p-a-ps, or at the minimum, they are difficult to find. Those who find themselves in modern bricks-and-mortar consumption sites, or those that exist online, can be considered the new prosumers (vs. the primal prosumers of early human history) who are literally forced to prosume (to be new prosumers) by the ways in which the new means of prosumption are structured. The new prosumer is characterized not only by this coercion but also by greatly increased and radically new forms of prosumption. Much of that change is attributable to the new means of prosumption.
The idea of the new means of prosumption is derived from Marx’s famous concepts of the means of production, as well as the less well-known idea of the means of consumption. (Note that in separating them, and as we will see in discussing them, Marx, like many other social theorists, was drawing that unfortunate distinction between production and consumption). Interestingly, Marx’s definition of the means of production (really p-a-p)—“commodities that possess a form in which they . . . enter productive consumption”—makes it clear that he is aware of the consumption involved in the process of production; of the process of prosumption (Marx 1884/1981:471; see following). Productive consumption is obviously one way of thinking about prosumption, albeit one that, as is Marx’s wont (as well as that of most Marxists), prioritizes production over consumption. Among the means of production for Marx are labor time, tools, and machines; they are used and used up in the process of production. The means of production are, in Marx’s terms, “the means that make possible . . . the production of commodities” (Ritzer 2010:50). Marx also develops the idea of the means of consumption (really p-a-cs), but his definition does not follow from the way he defines the means of production: it is wildly off-base.
The means of consumption play the same mediating role in consumption that the means of production play in Marx’s theory of production. Just as the means of production are those structures that allow the proletariat to produce, the means of consumption are the structures that make it possible for people to acquire goods and services. Thus, the means of consumption should be defined (assuming we are going to do something we no (p. 80) longer should do and clearly differentiate between production and consumption), in parallel with the definition of the means of production, as “those means that make it possible for people to acquire goods and services” (Ritzer 2010:50).
Since we are redefining production and consumption as forms of prosumption, it is clear that the means of production and the means of consumption should both be seen as means of prosumption. Means of prosumption are defined as those means that make it possible, necessary, for people to prosume. However, what is key to the discussion in this essay is the idea of the “new means of prosumption.” A variety of new means have been created, largely in the last century, that have radically expanded and altered the process of prosumption. Virtually all of these innovations have been at the prosumption-as-consumption end of the continuum. These include cafeterias (traceable to the late 1800s, prominent throughout the first half of the twentieth century, but largely disappeared today; Hardart and Diehl 2002), supermarkets (begun in the early twentieth century and increasingly predominant throughout the United States and the developed world; Ruhlman 2017), and the fast-food restaurant (early versions go back to the 1920s, but they have boomed in the United States and globally since the middle of the twentieth century; Ritzer 2019). (There were many predecessors, of course, in the last few centuries, especially in Paris, including the arcade, Benjamin 1999; the drugstore, Baudrillard 1970/1998; and the department store, Williams 1982). Although all of these are usually thought of, and are, means of consumption, they also need to be seen as means of prosumption because they represent, and are in forefront of, turning consumers into working consumers: prosumers. Thus, in cafeterias, supermarkets, and fast-food restaurants, consumers have been led (even forced) to do work for no pay formerly done by paid employees such as waiters and grocers. A more recent and even more revolutionary development is the three-dimensional (3-D) printer (more generally additive manufacturing), which will increasingly allow people to produce (largely for their own use) in their homes (among other settings) things that were formerly manufactured elsewhere and had to be consumed in a consumption setting (Anderson 2012).
In contrast, there are fewer new means of prosumption at the prosumption-as-production end the continuum. What we usually think of as means of prosumption (or production) are, for example, the factory (with roots in the early 1800s), the assembly line (early twentieth century), just-in-time manufacturing (late twentieth-century Japan), and the automated and increasingly robotized factory (late-twentieth century through the present day . . . and beyond to factories dominated by artificial intelligence [AI]). The prosumers-as-producers in all of these settings are also prosumers-as-consumers (e.g., of raw materials). While there are some recent innovations in these settings designed to make those who work in them more and/or better prosumers-as-producers, the main goal in settings as diverse as modern factories and convenience stores is to eliminate as many of them possible through advances in robotization and AI. As p-a-cs consume, they are simultaneously and unconsciously producing highly valuable information (especially “Big Data”; Cockayne 2016) about themselves as they are tracked while browsing and buying products on, for example, Amazon.com (Packer 2014). This is but a small part of what it, and many other entities, are doing in ushering (p. 81) us into the computational culture’s (Boyd and Crawford 2012) era of “datafication” (McAfee and Brynjollfson 2012; Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier 2013). In this era, the goal is to turn as many things as possible, even the self through self-tracking devices such as Fitbit, into data; to replace subjectivity with objectivity (Lupton 2016).
Digital sites lend themselves easily to the collection of massive amounts of data (Lazer and Radford 2017). These data are provided, usually free of charge and often unknowingly, by users and providers. The users provide that data (e.g., preferences for various products) every time they click, for example, on products available on Amazon.com. The latter then turns around and extracts and uses that data in various ways, most obviously in targeting users with ads for products related to their preferences. Google uses extracted search data to “sell targeted ad space to advertisers through an increasingly automated auction system” (Srnicek 2016:52). Such data are now the source of almost all Google’s and Facebook’s revenue. Remember that virtually all of these data come from users (prosumers) who receive no monetary compensation for their contributions.
Amazon’s recent purchase of the Whole Foods chain of supermarkets reflects the growing importance of big data. Supermarket chains have not been able to create, or to have access to, the abundance of big data that will be available to Whole Foods when it is under the Amazon umbrella. The worry is that such data, along with other Amazon’s advantages, will allow Whole Foods to become a dominant player in the supermarket business, much bigger than it heretofore has been. Established supermarket chains will find it increasingly difficult to compete, and even survive, in this market. Furthermore, the addition of Whole Foods will enable Amazon to gather much more big data on food shopping. It can then use that not only to enhance Whole Foods’ position in the supermarket world but also to improve Amazon’s role in the online sale of food.
These new forms of prosumption-as-consumption are especially important in the digital world, but they are, as is clear in Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, also occurring in the material world. While this involves a distinction between the material and the digital worlds, it is only for discussion purposes. As is clear in the new relationship between Amazon.com and Whole Foods, the bricks-and-mortar and digital worlds increasingly interpenetrate; that is, they augment one another (Jurgenson 2012).
While the relationship between these digital (and material) phenomena and prosumption has yet to be fully articulated (in large part because analysts have until recently lacked the concept of prosumption), a number of students of the Internet came close to understanding that relationship without having (or using) the concept. For example, Howe (2009:71) contended, “Once upon a time there were producers and consumers . . . the ‘consumer,’ as traditionally conceived, is becoming an antiquated concept.” Interestingly, undoubtedly because of a lingering productivist bias, Howe is unable to see that the concept of the producer has also become outdated. Similarly, Clay Shirky (2008) argues that “the consumer is the Internet’s most recent casualty” and that “we are all producers now.” Once again we see the productivist bias at work here because while Shirky is able dismiss the concept of consumption on the Internet, he remains in the thrall of the idea of production there (and presumably elsewhere).
(p. 82) Overall, the following characterize these and related developments:
• People (as p-a-cs) are doing things that they rarely, if ever, did before.
• Many people are no longer employed, or have different jobs, because of the many tasks they are now performing without pay as prosumers (Manika et al. 2017).
• Companies are earning unprecedented profits because they are able to employ far fewer people, in part because of the fact that prosumers do the work without demanding, or even expecting, recompense.
• People (as p-a-cs) get lots of things free of charge (news, information, social contacts, etc.), especially on the Internet, in part because of their free labor.
• Many of these developments have been made possible by new technologies—the smartphone, computer, Internet, self-scanner, 3-D printer—and this is leading to still more technological change (e.g., AI) that will further expand the process of concern here.
Given this discussion of prosumption, we turn now to a discussion of a new form of capitalism—prosumer capitalism—and a comparison to producer and consumer capitalism. Such a discussion is, needless to say, deeply indebted to the theorizing of Karl Marx.
To Marx (1867/1967), the major source of the economic “success” of producer capitalism, at least from the capitalist’s point of view, lies in the exploitation of the proletariat.1 That is, the proletariat is paid less, usually far less, than the profits to be earned by the capitalist from what the proletariat produces.
While the worker continues to be exploited in consumer capitalism, it could be argued that the exploitation of the consumer is a progressively important source of capitalist success and profit in that economic system. The exploitation of consumers is very different from the exploitation of workers. While workers are paid less than the value of what they produce, consumers (at least collectively) pay more, often much more, for those products than they cost to produce.
Producer capitalism is a largely singly exploitative economic system focused on the exploitation of the workers; consumer capitalism can be seen as a doubly exploitative economic system. In other words, in consumer capitalism, the capitalist earns significant profits through the exploitation of both workers and consumers.
In prosumer capitalism, we have moved beyond the single and double exploitation of producer and consumer capitalism to synergistically double exploitation. The exploitation of the two types of prosumers used to take place largely in different settings. P-a-ps were exploited mainly in factories and offices, while p-a-cs were exploited primarily in shopping venues. In addition, the exploitation of p-a-cs and p-a-ps occurred at different (p. 83) times. P-a-ps were exploited primarily during the work day, while p-a-cs were exploited largely after work and on weekends. Now, the exploitation of the prosumer (both as p-a-p and p-a-c) is increasingly likely to take place in the same setting (including online, at home amidst the family, as well as in other elements of the social factory) and often at about the same time. That is, the exploitation of p-a-p and p-a-c interpenetrate, creating a synergy that results in a new form, and an unprecedented level, of exploitation.
Examples of the synergistic double exploitation of p-a-cs and p-a-ps are found in self-service gasoline stations, self-operating kiosks in fast-food restaurants, ATMs, self-checkouts at supermarkets, self-check-ins and self-checkouts at hotels, and especially on online consumption sites such as Amazon.com. In all of these systems, work that was once done by paid employees is now performed by p-a-cs who do many of the same tasks, but they do them on an unpaid basis. In doing so, they are being exploited as producers, but this is occurring at the same time they are being exploited as consumers by, for example, overpaying for gasoline, bank services, groceries, airplane tickets, hotel accommodations, and the myriad goods and services for sale online.
The counterargument to the idea that prosumers are exploited, if not doubly and synergistically exploited, is that their reward for their “work” is the lower prices offered to them (or rooted out by them because they are “educated consumers”) rather than a paycheck. That is, prosumers are simply being “paid,” or at least being rewarded, in a different way than producers (and consumers) in the past. They do the work associated with contemporary forms of prosumption because they believe that they are getting lower prices, and those savings are an adequate reward for the work involved. This is certainly a possibility, and it would be the argument that those who own today’s profit-making organizations would make.
However, the strongest and clearest evidence that prosumers do not ordinarily save money is to be found in the cases where new self-service systems coexist with older systems involving paid employees providing services to consumers. Typical is the case of the checkout lanes in supermarkets and in many other retail businesses. Those people who use self-checkout do unpaid work (e.g., scanning and bagging their purchases) that is done by paid cashiers on traditional lanes. However, those prosumers who use the self-checkout lanes pay the same amount for their purchases as those who use traditional lanes. More generally, supermarkets save money (and enhance their profitability) because of that free labor and the lower labor costs associated with the reduced need for paid employees. However, they do not pass the full savings directly on to the prosumers who are doing the work, who are providing the free labor. It is possible, however, that all shoppers (those who prosume and those who continue to consume in the traditional way with the help of paid employees) are offered lower prices because of the free labor done of prosumers. In that case, the prosumers are, in a way, subsidizing more traditional consumers (now “free-riders”), and there is no net gain to the owners of those supermarkets.
It is safe to assume that the contemporary means of prosumption have been put in place by profit-making businesses in order to improve the bottom lines, the profits, of the companies involved. Prosumption can be seen as one of many devices (others (p. 84) include a wide range of labor-saving technologies; in fact, prosumption itself can be seen as a paid-labor saving device) employed to reduce the cost of labor.
Not only are prosumers being doubly and synergistically exploited, but they are to a large degree, if not totally, oblivious to the exploitation. This is due, in part, to the fact that the exploitation is concealed by capitalistic businesses. As a result, it is impossible for prosumers to know what, if anything, entrepreneurs gain economically and how much prosumers’ efforts contribute to increased profits. Yet, it still should be clear to prosumers that they are being exploited. After all, they know that they are not receiving a discount for doing self-checkout work (and similar tasks such as using ATMs).
Nevertheless, many use, even prefer, self-checkout lanes (and ATMs). They do not do so to save money but for a variety of other reasons. The lanes may be shorter at self-checkout, and they may move faster. People believe they can scan, pay for, and bag their purchases more quickly and efficiently than cashiers. Prosumers tend to like doing those tasks in much the same way they enjoy video games of various types. Indeed, shopping can come to be seen by them as a kind of a game or play (or “playbor”; Scholz 2013). How can prosumers do anything about this exploitation if they are unaware of the process in and through which it occurs and are often enjoying themselves?
Even though they are usually seamlessly intertwined, we need to distinguish between the consumption and production phases of p-a-p and of p-a-c (see Figure 3.2). During p-a-p, those involved (typically workers) consume what is needed to produce as well as produce things (goods, services, etc.) with what they have consumed. In this, we are distinguishing between the time and the process during, and in which, p-a-ps consume and produce. Beyond that conceptual distinction, it is being argued that exploitation takes place in both of these phases of the p-a-p process. That is, workers are paid less than they should be for both the consumption of things such as raw materials and, of course, for the production of commodities from those materials.
It takes p-a-ps time and energy both to produce and to consume during the prosumption process. For example, in supermarkets, those who stock shelves must retrieve the needed products from storage (consumption) and then actually put them in their proper spaces on shelves and cases in the store (production). This distinction seems trivial, but it is important to the general argument about prosumption and to the fact that exploitation takes place in both the production and consumption phases of p-a-p.
The same distinction needs to made for p-a-cs; and in this case, it is of much greater consequence, especially in today’s world. While we rarely consider p-a-cs as being both consumers and producers, we almost never think of them as being exploited. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to think of p-a-cs as being exploited in the consumption phases of the prosumption process. For example, it is not hard to think of them as paying more than they should for what they consume (purchase). Indeed, the essence of consumer capitalism is (p. 85) to get consumers to pay as much as possible for products and services in which the costs of production and sale have been reduced to the bare minimum.
What is difficult is to think of is p-a-cs as producers, or, as mentioned earlier, “working customers,” and as being exploited in the production phase of the process. My earliest thinking on this issue was in my work on the McDonaldization of society (Ritzer 1983; 1993) in a discussion of the ways in which fast-food restaurants were “putting customers to work.” Of course, this process was not invented by the fast-food restaurant. Customers have always worked in restaurant settings (e.g., in the most traditional of restaurants by, for example, reading and ordering from a menu), but there has been a long tradition of refining and amplifying that process. For example, the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century cafeterias led consumers to perform a wide range of tasks on their own such as retrieving trays, utensils, and napkins; lining up and wending their way through a line where they obtained the food they desired; and then paying at the cash register at the end of the line (Hardart and Diehl 2002). It is important to remember that the customer in a traditional restaurant is required to perform none of these tasks. Instead, they are performed by paid employees such as waitpersons and bus persons.
There are a series of broader senses in which p-a-cs are producers (or working customers). First, they are producing awareness of, and desire for, various products (e.g., a meal at a cafeteria; a Big Mac at McDonald’s) long before they ever enter a setting in which they are able to consume them. However the desire is produced (e.g., by word of mouth or advertising), p-a-cs then need to produce the actions required to get them to the bricks-and-mortar location (or the website) where the products are available for sale. Once there, the initial desire needs to be reproduced (or possibly altered) and translated into the steps needed to actually obtain and purchase the product. The preceding is little more than a brief sketch of the many acts that can be seen as the production phase of p-a-c. Given that, in what sense is there a consumption phase of p-a-c? In what senses are p-a-cs consumers? These are much easier questions to answer since p-a-cs are what we usually consider consumers, and it seems abundantly clear that they are engaged in the process of consumption.
Among p-a-cs, the most obvious and material changes in contemporary capitalism have occurred in the (unpaid) production phase of their activities. This involves the work that p-a-cs do in material settings (e.g., in serving themselves at supermarkets and ATMs). Virtually every setting dealt with under the heading of the “cathedrals of consumption” (Ritzer 2010) has developed techniques to ratchet up the reliance on, and exploitation of, p-a-cs as producers. For example, cruise ships issue all-purpose cards to passengers that not only serve as keys to their staterooms but that also can be used to charge all sorts of goods and services on the ship. They are especially useful in allowing passengers to gamble effortlessly by, for example, inserting their cards into slot machines (where people prosume the gambling process rather than having it produced, at least in part, by paid employees such as dealers at the poker table—there are now even automated poker machines operated by the prosumers themselves to produce (and consume) the games rather than relying on dealers who are paid employees). The use of such cards, (p. 86) rather than cash, makes expenditures seem less real and leads people to spend more, and in the case of gambling, to lose more.
A similar example is the Disney smartband bracelet, which allows visitors (p-a-cs) to swipe their bracelets to enter their hotel rooms, purchase food, gain priority access to Disney’s attractions, and so forth. Fewer employees (p-a-ps) are needed to do this work. An added benefit is that because visitors can move through the park and its attractions faster, the park can accommodate many more people per day. That, of course, means increased revenue and profits.
Prosumers (as p-a-cs) have also seen the consumption phase of the prosumption process speeded up and made more efficient. In other words, it has been rationalized to a high degree in recent decades (Ritzer 2018; Weber 1921/1968). To continue with the last example, those who gamble on slot machines on cruise ships no longer need to accumulate (consume) large numbers of coins (if they happen to win) that need to be brought to the cashier to be exchanged for bills. Instead, winnings are simply registered on one’s card and at the end of the trip winnings (or more likely losses) are accounted for on one’s final bill.
Are Prosumers Really Exploited?
There are those who believe that material and digital systems are not exploitative of prosumers. The strongest argument is that those who created and run these systems deserve their great rewards because of their creative entrepreneurship (Schumpeter 1976). Prosumers do get lower prices in at least some material settings such as IKEA. Online, prosumers are not paid for the work they do and the information they provide, but they are rewarded with free access to systems such as Amazon.com and Facebook that are very costly to produce, monitor, maintain, constantly update and expand with ever-increasing numbers of users. Amazon.com (and many similar sites) offers the reward of not needing to leave one’s home and incurring the costs (of gasoline, parking, and bus fares) associated with traveling to various bricks-and-mortar sites, which may or may not have what one wants. Thus, from a rational choice perspective, it is rational for prosumers to use such material and immaterial sites because the rewards associated with them seem to outweigh the costs.
Capitalists contend that it is they who created IKEA and Facebook and their basic systems, and they therefore deserve all the profits. They made huge investments, and continue to make them, in the ideas and infrastructure that make the systems the successes they are. People would not be able to prosume on Amazon.com were it not for their creations. Furthermore, capitalists would argue that prosumers get many other kinds of rewards from IKEA and Facebook (e.g., the ability to buy fashionable products at seemingly low prices; the ability to keep up with old friends and to make new ones), and there is therefore no need to offer them additional, or in most cases even any, economic rewards.
(p. 87) In fact, there seems to be little or no demand on the part of IKEA customers or Facebook users to share in the corporations’ great economic success. They seem quite satisfied with the mostly noneconomic rewards that they derive from these systems. However, this is to a large degree a function of the fact that they do not see themselves as prosumers at IKEA, Amazon.com, or of Facebook. Thus, they are unaware of the productive role they play as both p-a-ps and p-a-cs in these systems. If they saw themselves in this way, they might well see themselves as deserving of at least some of the economic gain that is being derived from their substantive contributions to them.
Marx viewed capitalism as a kind of magical system where the seemingly insignificant underpaid work of the easily replaceable and substitutable proletariat is transformed into the enormous profits of the capitalist. Consumer capitalism can also be seen as magical in that consumers eagerly buy much more than they need and want and pay much more, at least collectively, for those goods and services than they need to and that they cost to produce, distribute, and market. However, prosumer capitalism is an infinitely more magical system than either producer or consumer capitalism. The capitalist usually pays nothing for the work of prosumers in, for example, fast-food restaurants, Amazon.com, or on Facebook. In fact, in many cases (e.g., ATMs) prosumers actually pay for the privilege of doing the work as well as for what they gain from it. Furthermore, there is no need to pay supervisors to watch over prosumers or to coerce prosumers into doing the work. They do it, usually enthusiastically, on their own.
Prosumers meekly, if not eagerly, do what they are led—and are expected—to do. In the process, they increase the profits of the capitalists. Thus, the prosumer in prosumer capitalism is infinitely more magical—and an even greater source of surplus value and profit—than the worker in producer capitalism and the consumer in consumer capitalism.
In the end, Marx’s theory applies even better to prosumers than producers: “The secret of the self-expansion of capital resolves into having the disposal of a definite quantity of other people’s unpaid labor” (Marx 1867/1967:534). The amount of unpaid labor to be derived from workers is limited by their ability to work, the time they spend at work, and their lifespan.
Capitalist systems tend to adversely affect the health and lifespan of workers. However, there is no such negative effect on prosumers who can prosume well into their declining years. The amount of a worker’s labor is also limited by the length of the work day and of the work week; but the prosumer’s unpaid labor (see Zwick 2015 for a contrary view), in the form of the work (production) involved in being both p-a-ps and p-a-cs, has only the absolute limit of twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Furthermore, laws limit workers’ time on the job, but there are no such restrictions on the time that prosumers put into their work. In fact, such restrictions would be unthinkable both from the point of view of the government and prosumers. This is true for various reasons (prosumers generally enjoy what they do and would resent restrictions on it), but most importantly because neither the government nor the prosumers themselves have any concept of the process of prosumption.
But the magic does not stop with profit from unpaid labor. Unpaid p-a-ps offer the capitalist many other advantages in comparison to even poorly paid employees. For one (p. 88) thing, while capitalists have many short-term and, although they are declining, long-term obligations to their workers (to pay them as long as they are employed; not to fire them without cause, etc.), there are few commitments to p-a-ps; and those that exist are almost all short-term, even immediate (e.g., that there be a place in the fast-food restaurant for the waste to be disposed of after the hamburgers are eaten; that a Facebook page pop up when a user signs in).
In addition to paying workers a wage, the employer is also often responsible (although again to a declining degree) for such high-cost benefit programs as health insurance, retirement programs, and paid vacations. The capitalist, of course, has no such responsibilities to the unpaid p-a-p.
Paid employees, at least historically and to a large degree even today, must be provided with the necessary and often costly “means of production” such as a place to work (an office, a factory, a superstore), tools, and machines (assembly lines, computers). In contrast, p-a-ps sometimes pay for, purchase, and pay the upkeep on their own means of production (the cars driven through those drive-through lanes; offices at home; 3-D printers, computers, and Internet services needed to prosume online; the cost of utilities associated with those offices, computers, etc.).
P-a-ps can be seen as part of what Marx called the “reserve army.” Marx was primarily thinking of the unemployed who stood ready to replace members of the proletariat who were dissatisfied and/or proved to be unsatisfactory in any way. More recently, the underemployed, especially part-time workers, can be seen as part of that reserve army. P-a-ps are perhaps the most recent and innovative additions to that reserve army. For one thing, they represent potential replacements for paid employees. For example, fewer employees are needed in fast-food restaurants because of the work done by prosumers. Bloggers are costing many reporters their jobs as more and more readers turn to citizen journalists for their news. Some bloggers who are seen as successful at what they do are literally replacing reporters and taking their jobs, usually at far lower pay. For another, p-a-ps constitute a standing threat to paid employees who may need to work harder, or take cuts in pay, because of the knowledge that there exist p-a-ps (e.g., bloggers) who could easily replace them.
What is most interesting about p-a-ps is that unlike most of Marx’s reserve army, they are likely to be employed and to earn a living doing some other kind of paid work. This puts them in a stronger position than, say, the unemployed. That is, they can afford to work for no pay as p-a- ps on their lunch hour and after their work day is over; they can even do much of it online while they are doing paid work. In addition, they are in a better position to be able to afford the time, and perhaps the expenses, associated with acquiring new skills (as bloggers, for example). With those skills, they become much more powerful competitors and even threats to paid employees.
There are similar savings to the capitalist in the case of p-a-cs. Traditional consumers need to be provided with physical sites, even very costly “cathedrals of consumption,” in which to consume. Those traditional consumption sites need to have a wide variety of commodities in stock (at great cost in terms of storage) if and when consumers arrive (just in case they are desired), and paid personnel on hand just in case their services are needed. Today’s p-a-cs do more and more things themselves, with the result that they cost (p. 89) less to serve, especially since fewer paid personnel are needed in material consumption sites (e.g., department stores). There are even greater savings associated with consumption sites on the Internet (e.g., eBay, Expedia, etc.) where paid employees are totally absent, and the unpaid prosumers do virtually all of the work.
Other savings are derived from the fact that products are either stored by prosumers (in the case of eBay) or the consumption sites (Amazon.com) and operate on more of a just-in-time than a just-in-case basis. Amazon.com does not warehouse the vast majority of the “long tail” of books (and many other products) it offers for sale (Anderson 2006) but rather obtains them, or passes them on from independent organizations and sellers, as they are ordered. These sellers may also handle storing and shipping themselves, further reducing the need for paid employees at Amazon.com. P-a-cs behave as expected in consuming what these sites have to offer, in part because the sites are structured to lead (“force”) them to do so. There is comparatively little need to spend large sums of money policing these sites in order to be sure that p-a-cs consume in expected ways.
The preceding advantages and savings are irresistible attractions to capitalists who rightly (from their perspective) seek both a decrease in their responsibilities and, most importantly from the point of view of profits, a great reduction in their labor costs.
The Nature of Capitalism Today
Karl Marx famously conceived of capitalism as a highly liquid modern system that is constantly in the process of being formed, reformed, and even transformed (Bauman 2000). The view presented here is that the form of capitalism predominant in Marx’s day—producer capitalism—has been, as Marx predicted, constantly transformed since that time. More dramatic, and unanticipated by Marx, is the decline of producer capitalism, at least in much of the developed world. The movement in the direction of the predominance of consumer capitalism, ongoing, at least in the developed world, since the mid-twentieth century, is itself giving way to prosumer capitalism. Thus, a new grand narrative (see Zwick 2015 for a critique of this) has been created here—producer > consumer > prosumer capitalism—that is unlike any other dealing with historical changes in the capitalist system and the economy more generally.
A Glimpse into the Future
As the concept of prosumption (and related ideas) gains greater visibility and notoriety, many more capitalists will more consciously and explicitly move in the direction of modifying or creating enterprises that operate in accord with the emerging principles of prosumer capitalism. Thus, we are likely to see the spread of this model, as well as a growing realization of the fact that there are great profits to be earned from it.
(p. 90) This represents a great threat to prosumers, at least in the short run, because they are not going to be as quick to understand that they are prosumers, will increasingly be prosumers, and the implications of this, especially in terms of the new synergistically, doubly exploitative system under construction by capitalists.
The situation facing prosumers is more fraught because of the fact that it is not clear—at least to them—that they are exploited by, and alienated from, this doubly exploitative system (Rey 2012). If they do not feel alienated from, and more extremely if they feel good about, the new system in which they are increasingly immersed, it is almost impossible to expect them to understand its underlying structure and character, let alone to question, or rebel against, it.
While what is being presented here is a highly pessimistic view of the current state, and especially the future, of prosumers in prosumer capitalism, it is possible to offer a more optimistic scenario (Chen 2015) based especially on non-profit sites (e.g., Wikipedia, most blogs) on the Internet. Here are sites and enterprises controlled by prosumers that operate for their benefit rather than for the profitability of the capitalists. Prosumption can be empowering because people are in control of both what they produce and consume. They do so to benefit themselves and not the bottom line of capitalistic enterprises. More importantly, they do so—and without pay—for many other prosumers who can use the systems they help to create at little or no cost. Likewise, Rifkin (2015) argued that the collaboration that occurs on prosumption sites enables the offering of many things free of charge (or close to it) on the Internet of Things.
Consequently, prosumption destabilizes traditional capitalism, bringing about its passing so that it can be replaced with a “collaborative commons.” Thus, prosumption is capable of challenging an old system or producing a new one that is empowering, democratic, and of benefit to all involved.
While one would like to be more optimistic about this, the fact is that the rewards of maintaining and expanding control over this system are simply too great for capitalists to ignore. They will draw on their great resources to dominate this domain and in the process work hard to limit, if not scuttle, efforts to turn it into a more equal and democratic system oriented to the needs and interests of prosumers rather than to the profitability of capitalist enterprises.
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