As any reader of this blog, or anyone who is familiar with me and my work knows, I am a generally a big cheerleader for the whole D.I.Y. ethic. User-generated content, peer production, craftiness, what have you -- I'm all the way behind it. My wife and I subscribed to both Make and Craft magazines. D knits and crochets like a dynamo, and I am in the process of publishing a book on how mash-ups betoken a new social epoch. We dig hacks, mods, machinima, anything that smacks of good-old-fashioned people power.
However, an unnerving thought has been playing around the corners of my mind for a while: What if the whole D.I.Y. ethic isn't (just) a strategic boon to collective agency, but something more sinister: a wholesale shifting of productive labor onto the backs of consumers, and a sign of the end of the bourgeoisie as we know it?
We generally think of D.I.Y. as (light, encouraging voice) "C'mon, kid! You can do it! Do it yourself!" But what if it's actually something more like (gruff, discouraging voice) "Get out of here, pal, I'm too busy. Do it yourself!"
There are certainly many signs that D.I.Y. production is supplanting traditional economic structures across many industry sectors:
- Fifty years ago, you'd go to a department store and purchase a bookshelf. Today, you go to IKEA, bring home a box of compressed wood chips, and spend hours at home with an allen wrench.
- Marketers are increasingly relying upon consumers to share the cost of advocating products and identifying markets. MySpace and Facebook can certainly be seen as vehicles for this trend, although it also applies in the mass media, such as the recent peer-produced Superbowl Doritos commercial.
- Fifty years ago, both local and national news events were reported and published by a corps of professional journalists. Today, an increasing percentage of the news and (especially) opinion we read comes from the peer-produced blogosphere.
The list could go on ad nauseum; these are simply the first examples I could think of. There are many competing potential explanations for this trend:
- Peer-production is killing traditional industry, (e.g. the much-maligned influence of blogging on the newspaper business).
- Big businesses are crassly appropriating the peer-production ethic to lower their costs and boost their margins, in the guise of consumer-friendliness.
- Everybody benefits from increased efficiency, with lower overall production costs being passed down to the consumer.
Unfortunately, none of these explanations appears to be true:
- In the case of newspapers, for instance, I would argue that Craigslist is far more devastating an influence than the blogosphere. Local and classified advertising have always subsidized print news journalism, and the Web is simply a much better platform for localized marketing and commece. If anything, the blogosphere provides much-needed credibility and readership for the newspapers' online editions.
- Far from maximizing their margins, many industries are now in the red, and we are witnessing the fastest growth of unemployment in American history, and one of the fastest rates of atrophied production on record.
- Consumers have hardly reaped economic rewards from taking on the burden of production. I did a little checking with the bureau of labor and statistics, and it turns out that the cost of furniture has escalated 300% (accounting for inflation) since the mid-1950s:
So if none of the explanations I cited above explain the D.I.Y. trend, what does? Is it just simply an accident of aesthetic and cultural history, a trend as shallow and temporary as pogo sticking or C.B. radio? Maybe. But I don't think so. My suspicion is that we, as a society, are primarily using the D.I.Y. ethic as a screen to hide our increasing poverty from ourselves -- both at the individual and the industrial levels.
One statistic that's stuck with me since i came across it a few years ago is that a double-wage-earner family in the 2000s has a lower standard of living, and less buying power, than a single-income family in the 1970s. Obviously, the continuation of this trend would be devastating: maybe we should expect to see polygamy legalized in coming years to functionally allow families to include three or more full-time wage earners. More likely, we'll see people staying with their parents longer, and the birth rate shrink, especially among higher-SES populations.
To put my premise simply: I think that the D.I.Y. ethic provides industries with a convenient way to hide the declining health and wealth of their sectors by cutting costs (both labor and capital) without cutting prices. And it provides individuals with a socially positive context in which to cut consumption costs, by buying raw or semi-raw materials, rather than finished products. Of course, neither of these trends can continue much longer; to combine metaphors, if D.I.Y. is an economic band-aid and craftiness is a cultural fig-leaf, the open sore of our festering economy and naked poverty of our middle classes cannot be hid much longer.
One final thought, generated by a masters student of mine as I was discussing the above in class last week: The whole green/sustainability movement may have powerful economic and altruistic roots, and may be socially beneficial in problematizing and solving the rampant excess of consumer culture, but it can also be understood as a fig leaf of sorts. When I was growing up, old people who saved string, tin foil, and paper bags seemed like damaged goods, crazy holdovers from the anomalous scarcity of the great depression. Today, it's becoming increasing hip and cool to do exactly these things -- in other words, we've developed a cultural mechanism couching the degradations of poverty in both the attractiveness of hipster culture and the admirability of altruism. Today's string-savers aren't a bunch of crazy old kooks; they're cutting-edge, avant-garde paragons of youth culture, and staunch defenders of our planet's future.
Please, somebody tell me I'm wrong...