I’m still a bit underwhelmed by the Tofflers’ Revolutionary Wealth. There may be better insight to come in it, but right now it seems to be lagging conceptually when compared to a couple of science fiction novels I’ve been reading.
One of the new-wealth concepts that the Tofflers’ mention is the idea of “prosuming”, by which they mean non-monetarily re-imbursed volunteer or amateur activity that either has an effect on the monetized economy or enhances the overall social wealth. An example of this might be online communities like youtube or flickr, or the extravagantly helpful digital art instructional forums of CGTalk. Very few of the content providers to these websites see any financial reimbursement for their time or personal expense in creativity. They do, however, enhance the general wealth by creating a vast, deep resource of images and advice for anyone interested in looking, and they have generated a tremendous amount of wealth for the individuals who invested in the structural creation of these forums.
Benjamin Franklin; Founding Prosumer
We can see this happening now. It’s not new however. You can look to any good biography of Ben Franklin to find out about some two century old examples of the same phenomenon:
…he formed a number of his colleagues into the Junto, “a Club for mutual Improvement.”
From this group, motivated by the wish to do good and an inclination for making profit, there was to grow a variety of public institutions…
…Franklin then proposed something more ambitious: a subscription library which could be joined by anyone prepared to pay an entrance fee and an annual subscription…
The next public innovation which he sponsored concerned the City Watch, which, he wrote, “I conceiv’d to want Regulation.” … (Franklin) proposed a regular force of watchmen who would be paid by householders, the payment being proportional to their property.
In 1736 he proposed the formation of a thirty-man (fire) brigade whose members would meet once a month “& spend a social Evening together, in discoursing and communicating such Ideas as occur’d to us upon the Subject of Fires as might be useful in our Conduct on such Occasions.”
Much the same practice of first sounding out informed opinion through the Junto and The Pennsylvania Gazette was followed when he proposed improving the paving, lighting, and cleaning of streets, the foundation of a city hospital and of the College which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. More important, however, was the American Philosophical Society, and inter-colonial Junto… “…formed of Virtuosi or ingenious Men, residing in the several Colonies… who are to maintain a constant Correspondence…” The members were to meet at least once a month and discuss the correspondence received. Their subjects, it appears from Franklin’s letter, covered almost the entire field of human knowledge, ranging from botany to geology, art and industry… Franklin himself offered to serve as secretary until someone else could be found.
– Ronald W. Clark – Benjamin Franklin: A Biography
Ben Franklin’s mad fit of colonial prosuming spawned police departments, fire departments, libraries, universities, hospitals, and learned societies. All of these things were begun as amateur volunteer efforts, but became the foundations of professional institutions as the colonies matured into a nation.
Part of the reason this could happen is, these things didn’t exist yet in colonial America. There was not sufficient centralized authority to impose solutions to these difficulties, so Franklin and his associates devised solutions on the fly.
Colonizing the Internet
The dramatically easier exchange of information made possible by the internet is kicking off another era of amateur volunteerism, as it provides a sophisticated and largely unregulated forum in which individuals can make the world over new. It fosters societies of like minded people to pursue objectives that might have been impossible a few years ago due to the improbability of them actual meeting and forming societies. It allows detailed, specific information on how to do things to be democratically distributed. It has much potential that has still not been tapped, with plenty of room for building new institutions from the ground up.
Again, I guess, it seems like this aspect of wealth creation isn’t really a new revolution… it really seems analogous to the amateur volunteerism required by undeveloped frontiers of the past.
I went on about Ben Franklin a bit more than I at first intended, so I’ll save the more innovative examples of new-era wealth creation from science fiction novels in the next post.