Some sci-fi pioneers in the 1950s had predicted that social media networks like Facebook and Instagram would lure humans in a way that they would want to break free
Science fiction writers predicted in the 1950s that social networks like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter will trap billions of people one day, in such a way that they will struggle to break-free, thus becoming perfect examples of modern-day robotic prosumption.
Products where producer and consumer are blurred are called the “prosumer” so consumers also play a part in a product’s creation, as with social media and Augmented Reality (AR) games. Science fiction authors like pioneer Frederik Pohl foresaw AR video games, the rise of social media and trends of hyper-consumption in the 1950s.
“Pohl’s work highlights the ability of science fiction to provide a better understanding of possible futures and the lasting impacts of modern and emerging technologies, allowing people to see what the world may become in a way easily understood by a mass audience,” said Dr Mike Ryder from Lancaster University Management School.
Social media users are perhaps the best example of modern-day robotic prosumption, “mindlessly producing and consuming content, while social media firms sell their data and target them with ads that feed back into the cycle. Users struggle to be break-free through a fear of missing out (FOMO).”
New research, published in the Journal of Consumer Culture highlights many parallels between the futures created by sci-fi pioneer Pohl in the 1950s and the modern world.
In the worlds imagined in Pohl’s works, advertising firms are in charge, exploiting customers for profit and priding themselves on their ability to shape human desire, where social status and consumption are intrinsically entwined, and where characters become hyper-consumers, threatening the stability of the local area.
“Science fiction is an important tool for testing ‘what-if’ scenarios, speculating on what the future might bring. Pohl’s worlds of hyper-consumption, robot workers and ecological disaster are even more relevant today than they were in the 1950s,” said Ryder.
In The Space Merchants (1952, with CM Kornbluth), protagonist Mitchell Courtenay is forced to spend his low wages on goods to help make his work bearable, which creates an ongoing cycle of debt.
His behaviour becomes more like that of a machine, a producing-consuming robotic prosumer, unaware he is trapped in a cycle. This pre-empted the real-world criticism of Vance Packard, who depicted a dystopia where marketers use psychological techniques to influence behaviour to the point consumers do not realise they are being influenced.
“Humans become more and more like machines, such that consumption itself becomes a mechanical process, creating a dystopian world where the only freedom is the freedom not to consume, one limited to the very rich,” explained Ryder.
Take Airbnb for example, that acts as a broker for users who are both the producers and consumers of goods, paying to rent rooms, while making money through renting out their own.
Uber drivers and passengers are able to rate each other, making the consumers a sort of product, and AR video games such as Pokemon GO see players become part of the product, appearing in each other’s games and competing for the same objectives.
According to researchers, social theorists and policy makers need to take science fiction far more seriously to help prepare for the world of tomorrow. “The challenges that arise from new technologies should be considered before they happen.”