It’s fall in New England. That means farms all over the region are opening their doors to locals and tourists alike to pick over their crops so that they might have that unique New England experience of working for their food. For only $20, you can get a bag and walk through the orchards and the opportunity to fill the bag with apples. Hours of fun (labor) for only about 20% more money than picking them up at the grocery store! And as you walk through the pristine New England orchard and enjoy the crisp fall air, one can’t help but notice the vast amounts of apples that have been discarded for one reason or another that will remain unpicked.
So what is the logic of this pick-your-own phenomenon? As local farms struggle to eek by in a global food context, turning working farms into a consumer experience has become the economic model du jour. Hay rides, apple cider, and some good clean labor, rounds out the apple experience during a New England October. But why are people willing to give up their labor for free? The answer is simple: the experience of certain kinds of labor is worth paying for, even if it is wasteful.
While gleefully picking my apples at a farm just northwest of Boston, I found myself thinking less about apples and more about the Internet. Is the reason I’m building up a sweat picking apples the same as the reason I contribute to YouTube, fan sites, or political poles? Perhaps I’m not giving up my labor for free as much as I’m paying to consume a work experience. Perhaps the experience of participation is the commodity. New Media theorist and commentator Trebor Scholz makes a convincing argument that sociable web media is premised on the unequal ideological platform of consumer labor for corporate gain – that users willingly give up their labor to aid a few corporations in profit-making. But what if it’s not about giving up free labor, but about paying for commodified experience. The pick-your-own Internet is premised on the assumption that participation is itself worth the price of time – that the experience of contributing to a fan site or a growing database is worth paying for.
As the production economy continues to give way to the experience economy, the pick-your-own Internet will become even more normalized. Just as a working farm in New England that doesn’t sell the experience of labor will become a thing of the past.