When Prosumption is Law, the Prosumer is King (for Now)
Smokers, if I told you that I could get you high-quality cigarettes for half the usual price, you’d probably smartly ask, “What’s the catch?” “The catch,” I might respond, “is that I need five minutes of your labor-time per pack.” This is precisely the bargain customers are making with a Brookline, New Hampshire store called Tobacco Haven – a bargain we social theorists might call prosumption. The shop houses a roll-your-own cigarette machine into which customers feed piles of loose tobacco and assemble their own packs.
The prosumer (who combines consumption and production into a single activity) has been discussed widely on this blog (see, for, example: prosumers of the world unite, Light capitalism, prize economics, and the prosumer, Out of Print: Prosumption and the Triumph of New Media, the prosumer and intimate profit). Most analysis has focused on examples connected to the digital world. A recent story, however, illustrates how relevant this concept is even offline.
Customers are happy to spend a few extra minutes to get dirt cheap cigarettes, and Tobacco Haven is happy with the tidy little profits it sweeps up facilitating the work of the consumer. The state of New Hampshire, on the other hand, isn’t amused and is suing the tobacco shop. New Hampshire claims that regardless of who does the production – company or consumer – the place where cigarettes are assembled should be considered a “cigarette manufacturer” and thus be bound by the decade-old tobacco industry settlement as well as obliged to pay state and local taxes.
The ruling on this issue, however, has broader implications than the price of cigarettes in Brookline. Essentially, the courts are going to rule whether or not the labor a consumer performs to obtain a commodity for personal use is taxable as if it were manufacturing activity. If we start down this path, what’s next? Pumping one’s own gas? Filling one’s own fountain drinks? Assembling Ikea furniture? Updating a Facebook profile?
Hard to tell where to draw the line, but one thing is clear: prosumption will be a significant issue for the courts of the 21st Century.