'Prosumption': Why just about everybody unwittingly works for free
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.
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.
CNN has a section called "iReport," where people are asked by the website to create content to "share your story with CNN, and quite possibly the world."
"There is a huge range of prosumer activity from the click of a mouse to actually producing news stories," Incollingo says.
Facebook isn't free
The Internet has become a big part of the trend of prosumption. Social media is an example where people are creating content and providing information for companies like Facebook.
"People love to go online and they love to work on their Facebook page and they have no awareness of the fact that the co-founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is worth billions because of all the information we have provided. We produced that information and now he can slice it and dice it and sell it in various kind of ways. We have made Mark Zuckerberg a very wealthy person."
Ritzer says it would be impossible for a company to get all this personal information the traditional way. But now people will tell you the most intimate things about their consumption habits, he says.
And if Facebook users can be thought of as nonpaid employees, there are an awful lot of them. According to statistics linked from socialbakers.com, Facebook has 665 million "daily active users" worldwide. These are the people that use the website on a daily basis. Of those people, 139 million are in the U.S. and Canada. This is up from 2011, when there were 372 million worldwide and 105 million in the U.S. and Canada. People who use Facebook on a monthly basis number 1.11 billion.
"Personally, I think that it's problematic to frame every aspect of life in market terms," says boyd, who is a principal researcher at Microsoft's research lab in Cambridge, Mass. where she studies how people and especially youths interact online. "People don't see themselves as employees when they socialize on social media any more than they see themselves as employees when they wear a T-shirt that advertises their favorite band or sit in their favorite pub, which advertises to other passers-by that this pub is a popular pub. Most simply go to social media to hang out with friends."
Ritzer says as long as people like prosumption and are unaware of it, it may not have much implication for them. But he wants people to at least know that there is an "exploitative" aspect to it.
"There is a tremendous change going on in society today," he says. "Most people are very aware of specific aspects of it, but they don't see its linkage to other aspects. They don't see the linkage between Facebook, Ikea, supermarkets and fast food restaurants and what is going on in those settings. In all those settings, what we see are a series of changes all pushing in the direction of putting more and more of what we used to called work on to the prosumer."
Dailakis, who travels often to perform his comedy around the country, just hopes the trend doesn't go too far.
"If this trend keeps going on," he says, "it won't be too long before when I fly somewhere that I'll have to get my own drinks and food. And then, who knows, maybe I'll have to fly my own plane — but I'll still have to pay for it."
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