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Lessons from science fiction: Frederik Pohl and the robot prosumer

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1/02/2022
<mark>Journal</mark>Journal of Consumer Culture
Issue number1
Number of pages18
Pages (from-to)246-263
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date23/07/20
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The diverse fields of business, management and marketing have long explored the concept of the ‘prosumer’ – the producer-consumer who not only consumes those products produced by industry, but also has some hand in their creation (Toffler 1980; Ritzer 1993; Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010; Ritzer 2015). But while the term itself is often credited to futurist Alvin Toffler (1980), the concept he describes (and that which Ritzer et al. adapt) is a central concern of science fiction, which has much to offer our understanding of modern-day prosumption and is not limited by the language and limitations of purely scientific academic discourse.

Indeed, one of the most important voices in this area is author and editor Frederik Pohl, with his co-authored novel The Space Merchants (1952) and short stories including ‘The Midas Plague’ (1954) and ‘The Man Who Ate the World’ (1956). In each of these works, Pohl seeks to satirise the mindless robot-like behaviour of human beings, while also posing a word of warning for the social, economic and ecological impact mass-prosumption. This is a particularly relevant message given the rise of ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff 2019) – the real world manifestation of the dystopias that Pohl and his contemporaries describe.

In this paper, I argue that science fiction isn’t just a useful tool for social theorists, but rather, a vital resource, as it provides a speculative framework through which to interrogate the potential impacts and implications of new technology, and the links between production and consumption, technology and work. Furthermore, it provides the means through which to imagine possible futures and the lasting impacts of consumption that go beyond describing the world as it is, and move into the realms of what the world may become.