National Edition

'Prosumption': Why just about everybody unwittingly works for free

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 10:50 a.m. MDT

A customer fills up at a gas pump on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt. The price of gas is at its lowest level since Jan. 31, itís the lowest itís been at this time of year for three years, and it is expected to fall further in the coming days. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Toby Talbot, AP

NEW YORK — When his friends wanted him to join them at a restaurant in New York City, Jim Dailakis unwittingly ran smack-dab into a perfect example of an increasing trend called "prosumption."

"Oh, it is really cool," his friends told him about the restaurant, "and you take ingredients and you take it to the table and then you cook it yourself."

"And I'm paying for what exactly?" thought Dailakis, a New York-based comedian.

On one level, Dailakis was being asked to have a fun experience with his friends — being a consumer. But on another level, he was being asked to come and act as an employee for the restaurant by cooking his own food — being a producer.

Take those two actions and two words, producer and consumer, and smash them together and you get some new words: "prosumer" and "prosumption," the simultaneous actions of being a producer/consumer who engages in production/consumption.

Dailakis' friends thought the idea of cooking their own food in a restaurant sounded entertaining. The myriad of ways that prosumption is taking over restaurants, gas stations, airlines, journalism, grocery stores, social media and other industries are also often seen as fun by people. But, then again, most of those people don't realize they are prosumers.

Working for free

Dailakis began to understand the ideas behind prosumption when he encountered that cook-your-own food restaurant, even if he didn't know there was a name for the concept at the time.

"Basically, I'm not in the comfort of my own home," he told the Deseret News, "and I am paying restaurant prices for groceries and I'm doing all the work. … I can't get excited by that prospect."

If Dailakis can't get excited by the ideas behind prosumption, George Ritzer can. Ritzer is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and is an expert in how companies, like that restaurant, are finding ways of reducing costs and raising profits by getting people to do work for free — making them both producers and consumers.

"The capitalists got rich in the past by paying workers very little," Ritzer says. "Now they are getting even richer by paying prosumers nothing. They are, in effect, unpaid employees — who are costing paid employees their jobs."

Take gas stations, for example.

There was a time when people would drive into a gas station, turn off the car and relax while an employee would fill up the tank, clean the windshield, check the oil level and sometimes even the tires. Except for a few states such as Oregon and New Jersey where it is illegal, people now pump their own gas.

Dailakis says he likes to get gas for his car in New Jersey instead of New York where he would have had to pump it himself. "I just like not having to get out," he says.

The gas is also cheaper, he says, in New Jersey. In New York, however, nobody is hired to pump gas for people. People do that themselves.

The primal prosumer

Ritzer says people doing things for themselves is the way everything used to be. "In our primal condition," he says, "we were both producer and consumer."

But then the Industrial Revolution happened around the beginning of the 19th century. Great factories employed workers. The focus was on production.

"The import of the Industrial Revolution is that it created an artificial distinction between production that was going on in the factory and consumption that was going on in the home," Ritzer says.

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