National Edition

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

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

That distinction is beginning to fade, even if the terms are still used. New technology is making it harder to apply the term producer or consumer. People are acting as both — and, according to Ritzer, they love it.

"People like to pump their own gas and they like to fill up their own cup at the fast food restaurant, but that doesn't mean they are not being exploited," Ritzer says. "The workers in early capitalism were alienated and angry and potentially apt to revolt. Prosumers are happy. There is no revolutionary potential there. Until they rethink what they are being asked to do and say, 'Wait a minute. Why am being asked to do all of these things that used to be the case that paid employees did it for me?'"

Supermarkets and Ikea

An early example of the prosumption trend is supermarkets. "I used to go to a grocery store when I was a kid and the grocer would get whatever I wanted for me," Ritzer says. "Now I have to spend half an hour wandering around doing that."

Ritzer says that technology has increased the prosumption role at the supermarket with the introduction of self-scanning checkouts.

Dailakis isn't a fan of using them, however. He says he may use them if the lines are longer at the regular checkout stands. But when he does, he says he thinks along these lines: "I can't believe all these years and all my studying and now I'm an employee of this store and my wage is zero but I'm actually giving them business."

Ritzer says another example of spreading prosumption is the furniture store Ikea, but not because they make people wander through a labyrinth.

"The revolution here is the idea that you are going to take home your Billy bookcase and you are going to put it together," Ritzer says. "The idea that we are our own furniture makers. People like it. And they think that they are saving money. Maybe, in a sense, they are. But if you look at the profitiability of Ikea, Ikea is obviously making billions and billions of dollars on a system based on exploitation of the consumer."

Ikea even goes further by having people retrieve their boxed products from coded warehouse shelves and then buying them at self-checkout lanes. Because the products are unassembled and fit in automobiles and minivans, people are also delivering their own furniture as well.

On its website, Ikea points out positive reasons for having people put together their own furniture: "IKEA products are designed to be assembled by you. That way, you’ll save the most money."

As Ritzer explains, prosumption isn't a trend that doesn't have benefits for people. People may save more money. They may enjoy the products and having control over helping to make things or do things for themselves. But those advantages may come with another price.

"We do a lot work in a fast food restaurant," Ritzer says. "We collect our own food, we clean up after ourselves. That means the fast food restaurant has to hire fewer people."

Airplanes see the same trend. "At the end of the flight they say, 'Please clean up after yourselves,'" Ritzer says. "It used to be that people came on the plane to clean up after the flight. Now the passengers do it."

Journalism by non-journalists

Journalism has been hit exceptionally hard by prosumption, according to Jackie Incollingo, a lecturer at the University of Maryland who has studied prosumption trends in the media.

"It used to just be that news organizations would send out the news, and that consumers would just absorb it," she says. "Now, news organizations are actively soliciting prosumer activity from their subscribers, readers and viewers."

Incollingo says people produce what they consume when they do something as simple as click on a story. That story then may be tallied and put on a most popular list. Other ways include commenting on stories and videos or even submitting photos or tips of breaking news.

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