Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution reveals its productivist bias in both its title and subtitle. Makers is, of course, a term that is synonymous with producers. The Industrial Revolutions- both the “first” (the factories of the 1850s), and the “second” (the assembly-line of the early 20th century)- form the backdrop for, and inform, Anderson’s analysis. They represented the height of production and to this day are the source of our lingering bias toward seeing the world through the lens of production. As the title makes clear, Anderson foresees, and is a cheerleader for, a new Industrial Revolution, a revolution in (personal) production based on the computer, the Internet, and especially new technologies such as the desktop CAD, the laser cutter and the 3-D printer (which squirts liquids such as plastic rather than ink). These technologies will allow us (in collaboration with others in open-source online communities) to make more things from the bottom up by ourselves, or in shared maker-spaces, than relying on large-scale organizations to produce them for us. I think Anderson is on to something important here and we will see a dramatic shift away from enormous organizations devoted to production and toward small, even one-person, arrangements capable of producing a wide range of things on their own.

However, my focus is on Anderson’s single-minded concern with production and the ways in which that distorts his analysis. The fact is that Anderson should have known better since all of the technologies and processes of concern to him also involve consumption. Indeed, they involve more-or-less simultaneous production and consumption, or prosumption. Many of the makers of concern to Anderson had their roots, and many continue to remain, in the DIY movement. DIY is a form of prosumption since do-it-yourselfers are most often involved in producing things for their own consumption. Many of Anderson’s initial examples involve such DIY activities as making things with his grandfather, his garage band when he was in his 20s, making dollhouse furniture for his children and, of course, in various web-based activities. A good number of the DIY activities discussed throughout the book end up becoming profit-making businesses involved in prosuming for others. These are ultimately the forerunners of the small businesses that are the hope, in Anderson’s view, for saving American capitalism and its economy more generally (Ritchie S. King, “When Breakthroughs Begin at Home.” New York Times January 16, 2012).

Anderson’s productivist biases prevent him from seeing that what he is really describing is a world increasingly based on, and characterized by prosumption. Makers are, and many will continue to be, prosumers making things for themselves, as well as for those close to them. Some, perhaps many, will turn these activities into businesses, but even then they, and those they hire if and when the businesses grow, will remain prosumers as they consume raw materials, their own labor time, and so on in the process of production.

As a result, in closing Anderson offers two alternatives for the economic future for the United States and other Western countries (226). One is where things are made to be “exchange values” to be sold commercially, while the other is where things are made as “use values” for one’s own use and for the sheer pleasure of making them. Needless to say, Anderson places his bet on the former alternative. Since he, like most analysts, does not possess a clear sense, or a well-established concept, of prosumption, he is unable to see that in either alternative he is analyzing prosumption. It is prosumption that is our (once and) future reality.

Re-posted from George Ritzer’s blog.

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This is a re-post from George Ritzer’s newly-launched blog. George’s original post was derived from a plenary talk given in 2011 at the first Theorizing the Web conference at the University of Maryland, and he returned to these thoughts in anticipation of the third Theorizing the Web conference scheduled for early 2013 at the City University of New York.

Our understanding of the Internet, social networking, and the role of the prosumer in them is greatly enhanced by analyzing them through the lens of a number of ideas associated with postmodern theory.

There is, for example, the argument that the goal in any conversation, including those that characterize science, is not to find the “truth” but simply to keep the conversation going. The Internet is a site of such conversations. It is a world in which there is rarely, if ever, an answer, a conclusion, a finished product, a truth. Instead, there are lots of ongoing conversations and many new ideas and insights. Prime examples of this on the Internet include wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular, blogs and social networking sites. Google’s index is continually evolving and a complete iteration online content is impossible. All such sites involve open-ended processes that admit of no final conclusion.

Postmodernists tend to decenter whatever they analyze and to focus on the periphery. One searches in vain for the center of the Internet or of social networking sites. They are multi-faceted and always in the process of being made. As a result, even if a center could be found (and it can’t), it would immediately change. The idea of the “long tail” reflects this kind of decentering. Instead of focusing on a few “hits”, blockbusters, or best sellers, the long tail involves an emphasis on the infinitely larger number of phenomena (e.g. books, music productions) that are part of the long tail.

The work of Jean Baudrillard offers a treasure trove of ideas that are very useful in thinking about the Internet and Web 2.0. Implosion involves a contraction, a telescoping, a collapse of opposing poles in on one another. The digitality of phenomena makes them much more amenable to implosion. The possibilities for implosion in the digital world are endless. There are no physical barriers to limit, at least for very long, implosion in that world. It is this, of course, that lies at the heart of the ability to remix and mashup sound, photos, text and much else on the Internet.

Then there is the idea of simulations and the argument that we live in “the age of simulation”. Simulations are copies, even copies of copies. This idea of copies is particularly relevant in the Internet age which is a world of perfect copies without limit. The fact that copies are both unlimited and perfect (e.g. through file-sharing) makes the possibility of creating simulations on the Internet greater than ever before.

Simulations are not only copies, but they are also fakes. It is arguable that web-based locales bring the age of simulation to perhaps its highest point thus far. This is epitomized by the Sims and Second Life, as well as other artificial life simulations and games of various sorts. There are few, if any, material realities that restrict the ability to create simulations in these worlds. Indeed, there is nothing in these worlds but simulations.

The hyperreal is more real than real; more beautiful than beautiful; truer than true. It is beyond reality in every way. The Internet involves sites that are more real than comparable sites in the material world. Amazon.com has infinitely more books on sale than a bricks-and-mortar book stores and no parking lot based flea market can compare to the offerings on eBay. Hyperreal sex is available on many sites on the Internet. Remixes and mashups of photographs, videos, and the like are well-suited to producing pornographic images that are more real than real.

Ultimately, we can be seen as living in a fractal age where things proliferate endlessly and expand like a virus or a cancer. There is no goal other than endless proliferation. The Internet is legendarily viral with all sorts of texts and images, as well as viruses and spam, proliferating endlessly.

An interesting idea in this context is the strength of the weak. In this case the weak are the individual users of the Internet and social networking sites. Their strength comes from the fact that their voices, while weak individually, become powerful when they are combined. Thus, for example, sites on the Internet that users visit individually can, when taken together, rise to the top when links are analyzed by Google’s algorithms. More dramatically, as in the Arab Spring, powerless individuals can come together, for example via Facebook and Twitter, and form a powerful revolutionary group.

The postmodern world is obscene since everything is made visible, broadcast, and so forth. The Internet is obscene because it is characterized by endless information and communication as well as never-ending social commentary,

Baudrillard’s most important anticipation of the current reality lies in his notion of symbolic exchange which involves the general and reversible processes of giving and receiving. This anticipates Chris Anderson’s world of the free, especially on the Internet. Those involved in the free world of the Internet offer gifts- additions to a Wikipedia entry, sharing a file, adding code to Linux, etc. In return, they receive various gifts including the knowledge Wikipedia has to offer, files from others, and the use of Linux. This symbolic exchange is not limited to a specific exchange of goods, but is rather continuous and unlimited.

The postmodern ideas employed here, and many others, are ideally suited to an analysis of the Internet and social networking. In fact, in many cases they seem to be more applicable today than they did when they were first created decades ago. In many ways, postmodern social theory can be said to have anticipated today’s (and even more tomorrow’s) realities and to have provided us with a toolkit full of concepts to analyze that world.

Of course, we should not be satisfied with extant concepts. Rather, we should relate them to new realities in order to help us create a set of new concepts and theories that will not only help us today, but will, hopefully, put us in a better position to analyze coming changes on the Internet and in social networking.

Today we have a guest post from Distinguished University Professor and social theorist George Ritzer. This text is only part of the talk Dr. Ritzer will deliver in Las Vegas on Friday, August 19thas part of the Consumer Society Research Network conference [program]. Ritzer’s work on the technologies of consumption is in full force in this essay. The technologies of consumption in the form of ever more spectacular “cathedrals” of consumption are coming to look more and more like “dinosaurs.” This essay to provides an important backdrop of the current economic situation in Las Vegas, one in which Ritzer argues mirrors larger trends in consumerism and globalization.

There is, at least from my point of view, no better place to discuss the crisis and contradictions in consumption in the US, especially in its cathedrals of consumption, than in Las Vegas, the city devoted to, and built on, consumption and defined globally by its iconic cathedrals of consumption; the major casino-hotels on the Strip. It is here that we witnessed what was arguably the greatest consumer-driven expansion in the US in the run up to the Great Recession and, as a result of the latter, perhaps the greatest economic setbacks. Unemployment in Las Vegas rose as high as 15% and is still over 12%. New construction is virtually non-existent. The foreclosure rate, while slightly down from 2009, remains the highest, and by a wide margin, of all the metropolitan areas in the US. Gaming revenue dropped by $2 billion at the depth of the recession and is still down about $1.5 billion from the peak. The largest casino hotel conglomerates- MGM and Caesars- continue to report huge losses largely because of debt incurred during the Great Recession. Mirroring the global economic shift to the Far East, Las Vegas is no longer the gambling capital of the world and has been surpassed by both Macau and Singapore.

Of course, the cathedrals of consumption would not be in crisis was it not for the broader problems facing consumption and the economy more generally. Most of the leading cathedrals of consumption on the Vegas Strip were constructed in the boom decades running up to the onset of the Great Recession in 2007 and they were built, and expansions and other cathedrals of consumption planned, in the expectation that the boom would continue. The recession hit the Strip, as well as Las Vegas more generally, like a sledgehammer and both have yet to recover. The gaming conglomerates that dominate the Strip (MGM, Sands), as well as gambling globally, were also hit hard, although they have largely recovered, at least as far a share price is concerned.

While the recession seems to have abated (although there are signs as I write of a “double-dip”), at least for the moment, there are deeper and longer term crises and contradictions facing the cathedrals of consumption:

First, they were erected during a period in which consumption increasingly dominated the American economy and relatively few questions were raised about such a focus on consumption and a corresponding lack of concern with production. However, in light of the recession, the rise of China as a production colossus, and the huge US debt to it and others, real questions have been raised about the long-term viability of a consumption-oriented economy. Can we consume our way to economic success? Could we ever have really done so? We incurred massive and ultimately unsustainable personal and national debt while we continued to fall short of a full-scale consumption society. Where would we have stood in terms of such indebtedness had we achieved the “dream” (nightmare) of a society fully devoted to consumption (and to jobs devoted to serving those who consume)?

Second, the irrational exuberance of the pre-recession era which, among other things, led to massive overbuilding in many places in the US (for example, American Dream Meadowlands [formerly Xanadu] Mall outside New York City) and the world (most notably Dubai, but also Spain), including Las Vegas in general and the Strip in particular. The housing market in Las Vegas is a disaster; one of the worst in the US. Most new construction is, at the minimum, on hold. Hotel rooms are readily available, often at bargain prices. There are plenty of empty seats at the gaming tables. Las Vegas shows are available at deep discounts. Partly constructed casino hotels, some perhaps never to completed, are to be found on the strip and those that are recently completed have plenty of empty rooms.

And, third, those un-, and recently, finished casino-hotels are, like Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and the Palm islands and its hotels and attractions, “dinosaurs of consumption”. The dinosaurs of consumption are huge and expensive to build and operate cathedrals of consumption that were planned and in some cases built in the period of irrational exuberance before the onset of the Great Recession. They are “dinosaurs” because they, like dinosaurs themselves, are ill-suited to the environment in which the find themselves and are facing the possibility of extinction.

Among the unfinished dinosaurs of consumption on the Vegas Strip is the bankrupt Fontainebleau Las Vegas. Construction on the nearly $3 billion, 4,000 room hotel was halted in 2009 and has yet to resume. The site was bought by financier Carl Icahn at auction in 2010 for a mere $150 million. Then there is the similarly unfinished $4 billion Echelon; building was suspended there in August 2008. The Harmon at City Center was supposed to have a 28 floor hotel topped by 21 floors of condos; only the exterior of the hotel was built and it may well be demolished because of design flaws. The exterior of the Octavius Tower at Caesar’s Palace is completed, but its inside is bare. St Regis Residences to be built between the Venetian and Palazzo was planned to have nearly 400 luxury condos with some priced as high as a million dollars. Construction on it was halted in 2008 but the steel beams are camouflaged in a wrap designed to make it appear like a finished (a simulated!) building. Another unfinished hulk, not camouflaged, is the planned 19-story Wyndham Desert Blue time share near the Rio casino-hotel. Aliante Station in North Las Vegas is bankrupt and the area around it has not been developed as planned. Other unfinished condos and shopping malls litter the Las Vegas landscape far off the Strip.

The largest landscape of consumption, encompassing a number of cathedrals of consumption, is City Center, the biggest private construction project in the history of the US (estimated at $11 billion dollars). It encompasses one structure that is already a dinosaur (The Harmon), while others could achieve that status since they have been losing money and many condos remain unsold. Also within City Center is Crystals, a “soaring cathedral of ultra-high-end shopping” (Fortini, 2011). On a recent visit to the 3-floor, 23,000 square foot Prada store in Crystals there were 3 employees and no customers. It is described as the “saddest shopping center on the planet”…and the “world’s most splendid ghost mall”. It is, in my terms, and “island of the living dead” where the shoppers are described as being “devoid of spirit”. (Of course, there are many such islands in Las Vegas; in fact, there is little in the way of a “sea of life” between the islands, at least on the Strip.) The restaurant Beso and the nightclub Eve have already gone out of business. In fact, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Crystals as well as City Center itself will become dinosaurs, or in the case of the latter home to at least several dinosaurs. The existence of one or more dinosaurs (such as the Harmon) at City Center makes it likely that others will experience the same fate. However, given the magnitude of the investment, it may be that City Center as a whole is too big to fail. This is especially the case because a series of hulks there like the Fontainebleau and Echelon could be contagious and threaten other casino-hotels there, as well as ultimately at least some of those on the Strip itself.

What I want argue is that the dinosaurs of consumption in Las Vegas (and elsewhere) are highly visible symbols and metaphors for the excesses of consumption, the hyperconsumption, that characterized the developed world, especially the US, in the boom years, even decades, that preceded that Great Recession. They stand as constant reminders of that excess and the hubris associated with it.

Clearly, hyperconsumption is ultimately unsustainable economically, and certainly ecologically and arguably even morally. Even a cursory examination of Las Vegas’ cathedrals, and especially its dinosaurs, of consumption should make that abundantly obvious. They should remind us, and the rest of the world, of the folly of such a form and level of consumption. However, the world has clearly not learned the lessons as reflected in the fact that Las Vegas is being outdone by spectacular developments in Dubai, Macau and Singapore.

While this problem strikes quite near to home, if not literally in our home, for many of us, Las Vegas and Dubai are notable not only for their dramatic dinosaurs of consumption, but also for homes and communities that are extinct or nearly so. The landscape of Las Vegas is littered with unfinished buildings, homes and communities. Many homes have been foreclosed on, abandoned, or offered for sale at discounts that seemingly no matter how deep the discounts people cannot be induced to buy them.

The issue, of course, is whether what is described above is just part of a short-term slowdown or whether it is part of a long-term change involving retrenchment following a period of irrational exuberance in consumption in general and in the cathedrals and landscapes of consumption in particular. More generally, one is led to wonder whether we have witnessed the end for many of the collective dream that untold happiness lies in consumption, especially in the excesses associated with the themselves excessive cathedrals of consumption. If we are, it is possible that the Strip’s cathedrals of consumption will at some point in the future not simply be debris or fossils from an earlier era, they will be little more than what Walter Benjamin called “traces” of that earlier epoch. Furthermore, Benjamin discusses the decline in quality of the traces or detritus left behind as epochs pass from the scene. It seems likely that the detritus left behind by today’s Las Vegas (e.g. an abandoned New York, New York or Excalibur) is likely to pale in comparison to the detritus of past epochs such as the Eiffel Tower. We have become accustomed to seeing traces of America’s industrial era in the rusting hulks that were our textile, steel and automobile factories. It is not outrageous to think that Las Vegas faces a similar future with the unfinished hulks dotting the Strip (and the rest of Las Vegas today) today being the precursors of tomorrow’s abandoned hulks. It may be that Las Vegas and its cathedrals of consumption are too big to fail, but we thought that about Lehman Brothers and many of Detroit’s great factories (e.g. River Rouge). At the minimum, watching and studying our cathedrals of consumption is a useful and abundantly obvious way of getting a handle on the state of consumption, and more generally the economy, today. In the past (and likely in the future), their spectacle drew consumers. However, it is not only the positive aspects of the cathedrals that are easy to see, but so too are the negative aspects. It is clear in Las Vegas today that its cathedrals of consumption are beginning to fray. Further signs of fraying will begin to threaten the spectacle that is at the heart of the city; the more the Strip looks tattered and torn, the fewer the number of, and the less well-heeled, the visitors who will be lured to the city. When that process begins in earnest, it will be difficult if not possible to reverse as Detroit has learned as a result of another era and type of economic decline.