It is striking to see how almost all of the key cultural practices that have formed around the Web, and particularly Web 2.0 — prosumerism, the long tail, the Open Source development model, mashups, remixing, etc. — can be analyzed and understood in terms of a political economic framework.
The basis of this framework was spelled out by Marx in the Grundrisse, which he wrote between 1857 and ’61 but which was only published in 1941 (check it out here). In that work, Marx outlined in broad strokes the basic structure of the capitalist mode of production, which he described as belonging to phases of a single process: (1) production, (2) distribution, (2) exchange, and (4) consumption. Although these concepts were not invented by Marx, he was apparently the first to regard them as a single system that had the capacity to reproduce itself, and therefore persist for long periods of time as a kind of vast machine or organism of people and things, tending toward change only through a gradual process punctuated by revolutions at critical points.
Writing before the invention of cybernetics and general systems theory, Marx had to rely on a more poetic framework to describe this process of change — the dialectical theory of history, famously adapted and inverted from Hegel — which has led many to dismiss (or embrace) his sociology as a product of Nineteenth-century romanticism. Indeed, the lack of a better framework within which to develop this idea may be responsible for the ill-fated revolutionism that become of Marx in the hands of his Twentieth-century admirers, the emergence of which Mark himself helped to create with his rhetoric. But his basic idea remains entirely consistent with the more advanced concepts of boundary conditions, positive and negative feedback, and the like.
The innovation that allowed Marx to conceive of the four-part cycle as a reproductive system was to join the ends of the system together. Rather than viewing them as a stack, with production at the bottom and consumption at the top, each operating independently of the other, and consumption acting as a kind of terminal “sink” in a circuit, Marx invented, or at least strongly appropriated, the ideas of “productive consumption” and “consumptive production.” Productive consumption is consumption that takes place at the point of production and consumptive production is production that takes place at the point of consumption.
Now, the first concept seems easy enough to grasp — basically, to run, say, a factory, you have to provide that factory with goods — food, fuel, equipment, supplies — to keep it running. Goods are not produced ex nihilo, or from materials that arise solely from nature and then get channeled into the economy. So production requires consumption.
The second concept is more complicated, and it is also the one that sheds light on Web 2.0. At this juncture of the process, the act of consumption produces … what? Well, for one thing it produces is people, the source of labor and what Marx called “variable capital.” Eating, the quintessential act of consumption, literally reproduces our bodies. If you consider the social dimension of eating — whom you eat with, when and why –you can see that eating also reproduces social forms, such as the family and social networks based on friendship, etc. Beyond that, the consumption of people (through sex and marriage) reproduces social relations, by virtue of class patterns of mate selection, a fact that has obvious significance in kinship based societies. But even more — and this is what has been picked up by folks like C.A. Gregory, Mary Douglas, and Pierre Bourdieu — productive consumption reproduces cultural forms and habits of thought through a complex articulation of taste formation and expression as we purchase and use a variety of commodities that participate in a symbolic dimension as dense and socially effective as it is usually invisible to the consumer. As consumer ethnographers have been telling us for some time, shopping is an act of identity formation, and that is only the tip of the iceberg.
So, what does this have to do with the Web? It illuminates the significance of the concepts of prosumer and remix culture. A prosumer is of course a consumer and a producer of something — podcasts, YouTube videos, blog entries. Remixing is the act of a consumer who produces new products out of the fragments of products he or she has consumed.
[MORE TO COME]