The (Global) Gift of Gab

Instinct and observation convince me that, when it comes to media products, the genius of the web lies not in delivery, such as movies-on-demand, but rather in assembly — enabling the rapid formation and dissolution of creative teams. Another change implicit in the web is the transformation of the passive consumer into the participant prosumer, to borrow a term from futurist Alvin Toffler.

Toffler popularized the prosumer in his 1991 book, Third Wave. When society moves past the second wave of manufacturing — the first wave being subsistence — the economy is transformed. Wave two was about specialization to increase supply and distribution. In wave three specialization breaks down, and people blend the roles of producing and consuming. Writing more than a decade ago, Toffler used sales of building supplies and power tools to do-it-yourselfers as an example of prosumerism. Home Depot and similar outlets have prospered by tapping that trend. We already see prosumer activity when people download music and create their own play lists that disregard the structure of albums or CDs. Will do-it-yourself media give rise to creative depots?

Toffler advanced the idea of prosumerism before the spread of the web, and now that it exists to actualize his theories, other thinkers have focused on the new organizational realities of a networked world. One such guidebook is the Cluetrain Manifesto, which boils down to the thesis that commerce has now become a series of conversations, in which many voices can join to provide the mother’s milk of markets, information. (That’s my first blush synopsis, subject to revision. At this point I’m merely finding interesting ideas, new to me at least, and making notes out loud to learn more).

The Manifesto was created by several Internet visionaries including Doc Searls, from the Linux movement, who runs an off-cited blog. When I visited there, the topic that happened to be under discussion had a prosumerian ring: When Demand Supplies Itself, Part N.

Another of the Cluetrain authors is David Weinberger, who also wrote Small Pieces, Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. He explains the title and thesis. Web publishing has ripped apart books and rearranged the pages in a virtual realm. In similar fashion, this reorganization will affect and rearrange human institutions. Again, having not yet read the book, my distillation can hardly do justice to his ideas. Meanwhile, enjoy a laugh by visiting David’s bio, which offers three entry points, depending on whether you’re a right-brain, left-brain or no-brain person.

Tom Abate