From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 30, 2005*: How many prosumers can fit on the head of cyberspace?

It's fair to say that pretty much from its inception, one of the defining characteristics of the World Wide Web has been the open invitation it has offered to just about anybody to express him or herself. The web offered us the opportunity to be not only information consumers, but information producers as well. And of course that opportunity was very willingly accepted by millions of netizens who happily posted whatever was on their minds and their hard drives to their newly opened web sites. It was a giddy time, a period in which, if you were looking for them, you could find signs of the imminent self-destruction of mass media culture, being replaced by a different, more populist, sort of mass.

And then .... And then mass media, the big movers, entered the game. From a populist media, great parts of the web (perhaps the vast majority of what most web-surfers encountered) soon became television and newspaper clones. Personal web sites still attracted attention, or at least got their fifteen minutes of fame, but the backbone of the web was no longer individual experience interestingly reported, but instead standard mass media - simply delivered in web format. And so it might have continued, were it not for blogs.

This is, of course, not only a truncated version of history - it's also a biased one. I have no way of proving that it's true, though frankly, I don't really care. It is, however, a widely accepted version of the development of the web (and an admittedly convincing one at that), leading to what many today refer to as the read/write web.

As should be clear to anyone who even occasionally reads these columns, I'm all for user participation. To my mind, individual takes on a myriad of topics is what makes the internet interesting and worthwhile. And that being the case, I certainly can't complain that, with the emergence of blogs, today's internet ethos seems not only to have made a pendulum swing back toward participation, but has even begun to expect, even demand, that participation. This expectation of participation, however, seems to carry within itself the seeds of its own destruction. At a very basic level, it's fair to ask whether, if and when all of us become information producers, we will still have the time to also be information consumers. And even assuming that we do find that time, will we be capable of separating the wheat from the chaff? Will we be able to find, and identify, what's actually worth finding? I'm becoming more and more convinced that we won't.

The idea of the prosumer (though not in its more recent meaning) isn't new. The term itself was made popular by Alvin Toffler in his book The Third Wave, though Marshall McLuhan seems to have been there first. Toffler and McLuhan were certainly onto something - to a large extent we've ceased being passive consumers and instead take an active role in the production of numerous aspects of our lives - not only in our clothes and our food, but perhaps primarily in our cultural consumption. But perhaps not as active as some might wish. If we're watching a reality television show we can SMS the producers to tell them who we think should win, or what changes should take place in the story line, but in the long run, we're still simply sitting in front of our television sets, watching what someone else has decided we want to see. If we intend to be information producers, however, we're going to have to do more than just recycle what we've received. Taking part in "cultural production", no matter how banal the result may be, essentially demands no more from us than expressing a thumbs up/thumbs down reaction to what we encounter. Information production demands adding value to what we've found, making it more worth while to the next person who may find what we've written than what we "originally" found. Without some convincing reflection on what we're "passing on" there's little reason for us to place ourselves as go-betweens in the process, as links in a chain. And though there may be a market out there for restaurants that allow you to cook your own food, when most of us read a newspaper, we don't really expect that in the middle of an article we'll suddenly be invited to write the rest.

Cyberspace has the virtual space to house the musings of all of us - whether those musings are noteworthy or highly forgettable. But having that space doesn't mean that it should be used. Over an extended period of time, the sort of mass production of information (or at least its dissemination) that blogs encourage is unworkable, isn't useful to us, is ultimately counterproductive. One of the basic ideas behind blogs - the denial of the need for some sort of certification of professional expertise - may sound convincing as a concept, but is probably doomed to regiment itself into a new categorization of authority. This isn't because we yearn for someone more competent than us to give us direction, but simply because if we all turn into information producers, the sheer quantity of information that will flood us will make us unable to take action. (And that's assuming that much of that information will be of high quality - a questionable assumption to say the least.) We'll have to limit our information intake, and we'll want to rely on the best sources for that information. We won't be able to avoid limiting the number of information producers with whom we come into contact.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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