The rise of producer culture
I was on the road with my family over the weekend, visiting relatives. As always, I overestimated the amount of reading I might be able to do on the trip and brought three books with me–Sen’s Development as Freedom, Lessig’s Free Culture, and Eric von Hippel’s Democratizing Innovation (download a copy for yourself). While I was reading bits of the three, I’ve been continuing to think about a better language to express my continued misgivings with the learning object model. (I should say again that a few years back, while I was creating the course that became tOFP, I was very much a learning object enthusiast, but over time have begun to wonder if the approach will work.)
It occurred to me that Sen, Lessig and von Hippel were all describing–in somewhat different terms, the rise of a producer culture very different from the familiar and well-described consumer culture that dominates now. Von Hippel describes numerous examples of how individuals and companies innovate in-house, creating custom-tailored products–often in cases where it doesn’t make economic sense to do so–rather than use mass-produced alternatives. Lessig’s work, through projects like Creative Commons and CC Mixter, has long been about the empowerment of the creative individual and community as opposed to hegemonic consumer culture and the law that it employs. And Sen turns traditional consumer models of development–income levels, for instance–on their head, suggesting development should be measured instead by the ability of people to create (in this case meaning in their lives), to choose a life they value.
Through all of these examples, I’ve begun to see the outlines of a new producer culture taking hold especially in digital domains, in which the consumer culture is being (in some cases rapidly) displaced. As the costs to produce cultural artifacts (movies, news and opinion articles, music, software, etc) decrease, individuals increasingly position themselves as producers rather than consumers, often in ways that threaten established consumer culture industries. I’ll just toss out a sketch of some of the contours I see:
– custom-production or niche-market production versus mass production
– production as an end unto itself–a creative activity–versus production as a means to financial gain
– open source and community-focused modes of production
– culture that invites parody, reference and derivation versus one that discourages it
– products that invite modification, subversive and alternative use versus those that discourage it
– decentralized modes of production and distribution versus centralized
– community-recommendation versus advertising
Sunday’s Times Magazine carried an article that captures exactly the rise of producer culture. On the drive home last night, my wife and I were able to name a whole range of things that carry the hallmarks of producer culture–blogs, wikipedia, computer-game modders, del.icio.us, P2P sharing, etc.–and even sillier ones like American Idol, in which everyone fancies themselves a producer and audience participation helps determine the outcome. The effects of producer culture are already impacting news reporting (via blogs) and will likely affect movie and music industries, not through the red herring of piracy, but more likely through the diminishing importance of blockbuster films and top-40 albums, consumer culture products designed for the widest possible appeal. As more and more people produce more and more music and movies, and people are able to follow niche interests rather than consume mass fare, the economics that support the consumer culture models may collapse.
To bring this back to learning objects, one of von Hippel’s points is that the larger a “market” a product is designed for, the more dissatisfied on average any one user will be. That is to say, if you create an educational resource for a small group of people (say, a class), the satisfaction levels are likely to be very high. If you try to create it for a much larger audience (say, the whole world), satisfaction levels are likely to decline, because of your inability to predict cultural, academic and technical variations within the market. This would suggest (as I’ve also suggested before) that any reformatting effort beyond that required to publish an educational resource is at best a gamble that is likely to not exactly work in most circumstances. The idea should not be to create one mass-production item that fits all needs, but to provide as many examples as possible of resources used in particular circumstances, all of which are available for derivation (and reuse where appropriate). Even the idea of learners as consumers of learning objects (even if they “custom-tailor” their learning experience) may be misguided. Learners may well be most usefully thought of as producers of learning resources as well. In other words, learning objects may ultimately be a consumer culture approach misapplied to a producer culture environment.