If we're all being put to work as consumers in the production of the things we buy, it must be having an effect on the landscape of our cities.
During the Industrial Revolution, the United States filled its cities with factories. Those manufacturing facilities quickly came to define the landscape of a time when America was in the business of producing things.
Then came a new era after the 1950s, when we started to produce less but consumed much more. Our communities came to be defined instead by "cathedrals of consumption," as sociologist George Ritzer calls them, or malls, fast-food joints and big-box stores.
Now we may be shifting yet again, this time back to the kind of society that was the norm for most of human history. Increasingly, we live in neither a producer nor a consumer society. Most of us, throughout our days, do both, often simultaneously. We’re all prosumers now.
So it stands to reason that just as America’s industrial and consumer revolutions changed our landscape, so too will this one, in ways both potentially good and bad that we have yet to define. The idea of “prosumption” may also be a more useful tool for thinking about communities, cities and how we consume than the more niche modern concepts of the "sharing economy" and "collaborative consumption."
Writer Alvin Toffler first coined the term "prosumer" back in 1980. And Ritzer, a professor at the University of Maryland, has thought and published extensively about it since. Twenty years ago, he wrote the first edition of the book The McDonaldization of Society, which warned that more and more of us were being put to work as consumers in the production of the things we buy. Think about your experience at a McDonald’s. Servers don’t wait on you. You wait for them, in line at the cash register. You also fill your own soft drink cup, collect your own condiments, carry it all to your own table, and then clean up after yourself when you’re done.
In Ritzer’s view, you’ve just done half the work involved with your hamburger – and you’ve done it for free. “I’m not sure the consumer reflects upon the fact that basically they’re working for nothing,” he says (and he’s unconvinced that you’ve just done all that work in exchange for a cheaper hamburger). But the trick of prosumption is that consumers like doing this. We appreciate the ability to do our banking at an ATM, and to pump our own gas, and to print our own tickets at the airport. Some of us even enjoy swiping our own shampoo across the counter at the drug store.
"From this point of view of a capitalism system, this is a boon," Ritzer says. Consumers have taken on many of the roles formerly done by workers, and so large corporations like McDonald’s don’t have to hire quite so many of them.
The same concept has taken off on the Internet, where consumers now have the ability to put in their own orders for just about everything, to customize what they buy, to create their own markets on Craigslist or make their own TV clips for YouTube. On the Internet, anyone can create their own content (please comment below on this story for free!). And this newfound sense of producer empowerment – or exploitation, depending on how you look at it – migrates into how we behave and consume offline.
Ritzer looks at all of this, he acknowledges, from the vantage point of an older generation.
"I remember a time before McDonald’s, and McDonald’s was a striking phenomenon for me. The cathedrals of consumption were a striking phenomenon for me," he says. "My baseline is always to remember when I went to the corner grocery store in New York and the grocer did the work. I came in with a list, and the grocer went around the store and got my stuff for me, and off I went."
Ritzer’s work has never specifically focused on urban society, but his own memory speaks to the fact that these sociological shifts change the shape of our cities, too. So many of the trends afoot in cities today are also a form of "prosumption," even if we haven’t been calling them that. Urban gardeners are prosumers. So are homebrewers. If you’ve ever done your day job out of a coffee shop (producing your spreadsheet while consuming their coffee), that’s a kind of prosumption. Carshare services are, too: They entail consumers working together to produce their own transit (or, to look at it differently, to cab themselves around town). And, just like at McDonald’s, you’re supposed to clean up after yourself when you’re done.
Among the younger generation, many of these activities bear a different name, one with none of the uneasy connotations that "prosumption" carries for Ritzer. It’s called, of course, "DIY." Ritzer, though, has focused on the kind of prosumption that benefits corporations trying to sell you something (as in building your own Ikea furniture).
"From my critical perspective, raising community gardens, or DIY, what I fear is that this gives all of this a romantic, positive take and obscures the exploitative side of it," Ritzer says. "Probably what needs to be done is that those two types of prosumption need to be carefully separated."
It does seem undeniable, though, that both prosumption types are on the rise, and that together they will change our physical landscape as well. “In the United States we are moving toward some other kind of model, which I don’t think is well defined,” Ritzer says. “Whatever it is, I think it’s going to rely more and more on the prosumer.”
Here is one thing we already know: Some places like bookshops and electronics stores will physically disappear just as Ritzer’s old-school grocer did, because the digital prosumer needs only an internet connection on one end of a transaction and an anonymous warehouse somewhere on the other. Perhaps, as the factory was to the industrial age, and the mega-mall to the consumer one, the vast Amazon warehouse is the symbol of the next phase.
Cities will surely also change in ways that seem less concerning, as more urban farms or rooftop gardens crop up, or as traditional office space gives way to the less structured coffee shop/cowork café, or as the distinction between home and work fades away yet more.
The industrial revolution introduced for the first time this physical and theoretical separation between production and consumption. At the start of the industrial revolution, millions of people left home to go to work for the first time (imagine, before then, the shopkeeper who lived above his shop). Over the years we came to literally codify this separation in our cities, creating zones meant for factories and commerce, and neighborhoods reserved for our homes. If a new prosumer society can also help blur all the lines we’ve drawn between the separate uses of urban space, that could be a good thing.
But beware, Ritzer warns, of its darker side.
Top image: Toby Melville / Reuters