There is something embarrassing about the word “consumer.” While you often want to be a proud “producer,” “creator” or “manager” of something, you hardly ever feel you are a proud “consumer.” We don’t usually brag: “Look! I am consuming!”
It may be because we don’t consider consumption as an achievement. Consumption does not require specific efforts, skills or qualifications. Consumption is not exclusive. Consumption is not special. Consumption can’t buy you a “like” on social media.
Then why are we accepting to be labelled as a consumer?
The modern economy is dominated by highly sophisticated technologies. From material extraction, design to distribution, manufacturing operations are complicated and quite specialized. The work of “production” is in the hands of a small number of skilled, experienced and qualified professionals.
As a result, the joyful part of producing – mobilize creativity, accumulate knowledge or feel a sense of fulfillment – are increasingly unevenly distributed. It wouldn’t be too far off to say it is almost 100% concentrated on the producer’s side these days, because technology has become so advanced that nothing is no longer so intuitive. Most products are a black box to many of us who have no clue to what’s inside and how they work.
Deprived of opportunities to unleash our creativity or even tinker, we ended up occupying the position called “consumer.” And this position is increasingly narrowly defined. “DON’T do anything,” the manufactures tell us. “We’ll take care of it. We’ll make your life sooooo easy. There, there. Just one click. One swipe. Don’t do anything else.”
Probably it didn’t sound too bad initially: why bother using our creativity when it’s crappy? Why put in energy when it’s easier to just veg out on a couch and wait for some smart people to come up with cool solutions?
But the problem is, as an increasing number of “consumers” are realizing, that satisfaction coming from “just consuming” does not last long. The honeymoon is surprisingly short-lived. You either have to consume “more” to offset the evaporated satisfaction, or else just get frustrated because products are not delivering exactly what you need, but you don’t know how to tweak them, or because you are already bored with them.
Rapidly growing Maker Faire helps people win back the joy of making something on their own hands. Quirky was the first platform for citizen inventors, and GE/Quirky partnership actually marketed products developed by such inventors. iFixit is an online platform where anyone can share knowledge to fix just about anything. Back to the Roots offers mushroom growing kits, which transform consumers to growers.
People who already decided that consumption is “boring” are venturing out to celebrate their own ability to create. Instead of waiting passively for products to do the job for them, they are starting to re-discover the joy of making something on their own. They decided to resign from their position called “consumer,” to move on to become “producer” or “creator.” It does not matter if the results do not look professional. They are discovering that the process of tinkering is already a joy.
And there’s “analogue renaissance.” Certain analogue products, which looked destined to go extinct losing to digital products, are making a surprise comeback.
The list of the analogue products reversing the tide is not short: Kodak revived the Super 8 cine camera, Polaroid renewed the Polaroid snap, and Nokia is releasing a revised 3310, an iconic cell phone that swept the market in the 90’s. And re-introduction of those old models is in addition to the existing used/vintage market. Obviously old models offer limited functionalities compared to their digital rivals, but that does not deter analogue lovers – actually, they choose analogue products exactly because they are focused on specific, emphasized features. You would pick Super 8 because you want to record films.
But technically speaking, analogue products are still products – just like digital ones are. You can listen to exactly the same song using a vinyl record and a turn table, or an MP3 file and an iPod. Aren’t they delivering the same functionality? Could analogue products, compared to digital products, still help users transform from a bored consumer to someone a lot more excited, engaged or creative? According to the researchers, the answer is yes and the key is “control.”
At first hand, it would almost look like analogue renaissance is pure nostalgia for those who cannot catch up with the latest technology. But a closer look reveals the truth almost opposite to the perception, two researchers, Ozgur Dedehayir andTomi Nokelainen, say. They monitored online conversations at “Vinyl Engine,” where ardent vinyl records users exchange of information and experiences on vinyl, turntables, cartridges, amplifiers…anything that would help improve the quality of their music listening experience, in an “old-fashioned” way. Those are people who didn’t let MP3 take over their entire music experience. Why? Because they see some irreplaceable value and quality in vinyl.
When someone asks for advice regarding which turntable to buy, people reply with very detailed information, such as the strengths and shortcomings of each model (most of which are used), which cartridges or cables to use, which speakers would go well with it, and how to adjust sound output etc. People even know how to take care of models that were discontinued a long time ago. It’s a sheer amount of knowledge.
They are individuals who like to express a much higher degree of control and interaction than modern technologies would allow them.
They are technically competent and sophisticated, and willing to spend quite a bit of money to enjoy using and interacting with the technology.
The researchers found that the LP users are far from lagging behind current technology. On the contrary, they are actually tech-savvy. They often overlap with a market segment called “early adopters.” And exactly because they know technology so well, they are saying NO to state-of-the-art, high-tech gadgets. Of course they are not saying NO to technology itself, but they are saying No to the way technology is packaged in today’s products.
In order to achieve a “we’ll make your life easier” mantra, today’s products focus on becoming self-contained. “We-will-take-care-of-it-ism” is everywhere. Most functions appear automatically, self-adjusted to offer outcomes you’d like to see – according to the assessments made by manufacturers or marketers. Your preference is pre-programmed before execution. But what if you don’t like their assessments of what you like? This is where things get tricky, because today’s products often prioritize automation over autonomy. In order to deliver pre-programmed easiness efficiently, they sacrifice manual adjust-ability, or freedom for users to tweak them. In exchange for sleekly-packaged, easy-to-access satisfaction, they want you to like what they think you like. Because it’s efficient.
What the “analogue renaissance” movement is showing is that a surprising number of “consumers” don’t need to be, and don’t want to be, handheld by the manufacturers all the way through to achieve their goal, and pursue enjoyment. They do not want automated technology. Instead they want technological autonomy. They want to tell technology what to do to achieve their own goal; they don’t want technology to tell them what to do. This is a critical difference.
They choose analogue products whenever analogue offers better options to perfect their preference. They don’t mind tinkering. They don’t mind spending time, money and energy. Because it’s their passion. Analogue products are filling the niche that easy-to-deploy digital products cannot occupy. And it’s the same niche occupied by Maker Fair or iFixit. It’s the joy of creating something using your own hands. It’s the joy of coming up with your own recipe, try it time and time again for improvements, striving for near perfection.
At the end of the day, what’s troubling about being a “consumer” is that mere consumption does not give you any control over the products/services you are using. Your satisfaction is at the mercy of the product you are using because it is trying to accomplish tasks on your behalf. Because you cannot engage in the process, you can only pray or complain if the outcome is not what you want.
You can never declare autonomy, even though you “purchased” it. As Kyle Wiens, the iFixit (online platform where people collaborate to share knowledge to fix a variety of products) co-founder puts it, “you don’t own it unless you can fix it.” You have to understand your product in order to fix it, and you don’t truly own it if you don’t know it. That’s why many people want to resign from being a consumer. It’s far more satisfying to try to take control of the aspects of the product. Kyle Wiens also said: “take something apart that doesn’t work, understand the problem so as you can fix it, and then put back together….is the greatest feeling in the world when it turns on and you know that YOU fixed it. It’s so exciting to know that YOU can control your own hardware.”