We want to pick up on some of the topics and cuts described on this policy-data site to hone in on what we take to be one of the central issues at stake, that is issues around what constitutes the individual and the role they have in data-related practices and consequently policy making in this area.
We’re especially keen to further unpack some of the questions initially raised by Alison Powell about the use of the terms users, consumers and citizens and how these words are often conflated or treated as proxies for one another. Our aim will be to show that it’s worthwhile unravelling some of the conceptual difficulties here and making some decisions about a common or shared language when it comes to thinking about people’s roles in data practices. Thus, while there may be some circuitous digressions, the goal is a pragmatic one, one in which we might might imagine a more well-rounded idea of people when it comes to data technologies.
Alison described how the terms user, consumer and citizen can infer particular dynamics of power. She asked: when humans and data technologies meet, what are the nature of the relations that the term ‘user’ is getting at? Are these relations of subjection, and if so, what does that mean for the possibilities we set up for users? The point that we want to hold onto is that the kinds of actors which take the stage in policy discussions, affect the future possibilities that emerge – and also their desirability.
The slippage of terminology was recognised within the group, as part of the difficulty in getting hold of the diverse and diffuse relations presupposed by the wide-ranging concept of data technologies. Many of us were invested in understanding particular sets of relations between people and technologies, particularly between consumers and companies. There was a tension here between holding onto terms such as consumer, that are accompanied by a host of normative (and often useful) figurations and recognising how new data contexts are also shifting what this category means.
The categories user, consumer and citizen all describe humans in relation to other entities, or as involved in particular sets of practices. Therefore a rethinking of these terms should focus not on the human individual per se, but on the human as already embedded or intertwined. Nicole Dewandre‘s provocative talk foregrounded the self rather than the individual, as something fluid and always already relating to complexes of others. We recognise the importance of the experiencing self, but as sociologists of technology, we orient towards the relations between humans and material things. The challenge for us is how to balance the insights generated through researching specific social and material configurations (for example in Tenison Road) while contributing something meaningful to policy debates, that by their nature must operate collectively at a different level of abstraction.
The Dialogue Day suggested some ways to go forward. One of the un-sessions discussed the possibility of re-specifying users / consumers / citizens as active participants in the emerging data economy. Here, the question specifically attends to questions of agency. There is an awareness of Alison’s point that the positions that individuals are given to inhabit are more and less active and passive. Perhaps the suggestion that entangled humans should be figured more widely as participants is a sensible way to go forward. We might then open up room for the discussion of specific examples. During the Dialogue Day discussions, this involved forms of enterprise that enable peer to peer service provision, loosely known as the ‘sharing economy’. The agency that participants have in relation to these platforms is not a question that can be answered a priori, but emerges from the examples themselves. This kind of discussion also contributes to the recognition of categorical changes, and potentially generates new terms for collective use in policymaking.
The need to ‘sort out’ these categories was certainly recognised within the group, but we want to linger over the political importance of this work. A situation where the terms users, consumer and citizens are used interchangeably is incredibly problematic. Alison described a dystopian situation, where citizens are the passive generators of data which is then fed back to them as consumers. Consumption of services is just one strand of the rights and obligations of citizenship. If these categories are collapsed, both in policy debates and in the enactment of large-scale technological systems, then the shared goals of creating societies that are good and just to live in are drastically curtailed. What’s at stake here are the kinds of futures that we want to build.
Humans are not only entangled as individuals with technologies, companies and states, but we are also entangled with each other. Ideas around participation can also recognise the importance of going on together that was emphasised in Nicole and Alison’s provocative talks. While it is important to be able to look closely at the relations between individuals and larger entities (and to regulate these), it is also important to bear in mind the collectivities that are also being drawn out. Citizenship is a social contract between individual and state, but also refers to shared ideas and ways of relating to each other, as Jacqui Taylor’s emphasis on civil society organisations often highlighted.
[Much more to come…]