For knowledge workers, the concept of ‘prosumerism’ aptly depicts their struggle to turn cultural consumption into cultural production, two activities that look substantially the same, despites the fact that the latter produces wealth while the former consumes it. This state of affairs becomes particularly evident if we look at a practice that partly constitutes ‘research’ nowadays. I’m speaking of outsourcing on social media the collection of books, films, essays references. All the harvested tips are then cherry-picked and afterwards digested in the form of an essay, a grant application, a syllabus, a proposal for a show, a design brief and so on and so forth.
Let’s consider an extremely simplified case in the field of the arts: the curator goes on Facebook and asks for examples of, say, artistic uses of AI. Thanks to his previously acquired relational capital, he gets plenty of suggestions from random neurons of the so-called hive mind. Some of these tips might come from a fresh graduate who spent her last two year doing research on the subject and might call herself an expert, an ‘AI in the arts’ geek. The curator thanks everybody and goes on putting together the show, which turns out to be a successful cultural product, a product that is turned into prestige and hopefully but rarely into money. The ‘AI in the arts’ geek is not mentioned anywhere and maintains her role of cultural consumer. Both the consumer and the producer have been reading about AI, spotting good pieces and even contributed to the same show. And yet, only the latter, a bit like the entrepreneur who converts invention into innovation, creates symbolic and material wealth. A wealth that will in turn expand even more the hive mind around him, in a sort a prestige-driven network effect.
I must say that this logic doesn’t only concern knowledge work. My feeds are populated by users who seem to outsource every issue they have to tackle, be that a leaking fridge or a paper on early internet art. Sometimes I feel like commenting "I’m not your WikiHow". But I never do. After all, asking for help is an expression of social bonding, it’s at the root of cooperation. And sometimes, when the clock is ticking and we feel overwhelmed by deadlines, a small and quick tip can do wonders. However, I can’t avoid thinking of Bauman’s idea that while a person belongs to a community, a (social) network belongs to a person.
I’m not saying that asking for help online and opening up research work to one’s social media circle is wrong. I just think that the outsourcing logic is becoming somehow an undisputed custom. So, before it turns into normality, I’d like to ask the following questions: Do I see my online peers merely as tutorials, dictionaries or encyclopedias? When I say ‘asking for a friend’ am I actually asking for an unpaid and uncredited Mechanical Turk that will help me getting a subsidy or addressing a design brief? Obviously, an exhaustive credit system is unfeasible, as well as splitting an already tiny artist’s fee or design budget into cents that are then distributed on Facebook.
So what? The issue is complex and I don’t have a solution but I’d like to suggest one thing to keep in mind. I need to constantly remind myself that cultural products (ideas, projects, recipes, scripts, etc.) are always collective endeavors and always have been (social media outsourcing, as well as audio remixing or code forking, just make it blatant). Culture is a product of the general intellect. How will we nurture the bodies that fuel this collective brain? I’m asking for a friend.
Also published on Medium.