I read The Third Wave by futurist Alvin Toffler in the early 1980s, and was particularly interested in his predictions about the rise of what he called “prosumers,” a combination of “producer” and “consumer.” Today, I am amazed at his prescience (despite what now appears a narrow focus on consumer goods.)
When I broaden the concept to include services and media, I see this trend in everything from YouTube to customized Scions to self-checkout lines at the supermarket to the demise of travel agents. From the Wikipedia entry:
Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt suggested in their 1972 book Take Today, (p. 4) that with electric technology, the consumer would become a producer. In the 1980 book, The Third Wave, futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” when he predicted that the role of producers and consumers would begin to blur and merge … Toffler envisioned a highly saturated marketplace as mass production of standardized products began to satisfy basic consumer demands. To continue growing profit, businesses would initiate a process of mass customization, that is the mass production of highly customized products.
Regarding media and creative content, I see a related trend. The barriers to entry have largely been erased. In the past, a relatively small number of people created content for millions of consumers. Today, millions of ordinary people have the ability to create a professional quality movie, book, magazine, or music track using relatively cheap tools. Of course, this is of wonderful. Unfortunately, it’s had a negative side effect: The value of creative content and skills has fallen through the floor. In the past, there were relatively few people able to devote significant time to doing creative work, but at least some of them were able to make a living at it.
Still, I think the democratization of media production has been worth it. In other words, I’d rather live in a world of millions of musicians making music for small audiences, rather than a handful of millionaire rock stars playing sold-out arenas.