The (non)user and The Consumer Appliance

Posted: December 27, 2013 at 7:04 pm

The “end user” is the person a particular technology utility is targeted toward. If the technology is a phone, then it’s the person using the phone to make phone calls. Traditionally, a user would buy some tool for some purpose and use it. These days our tools have become nearly universal. We have computers that run software where each piece of software could be considered a separate tool. We used to buy computers, now we buy phones, TVs, routers, household appliances, etc. These are all computers, all general purpose, just wrapped in different packaging with different physical use scenarios and software.

With internet distribution and “software ecologies” the relation between the tool-makers and the tool-users has become quite complex. Some software is provided gratis where the tool-maker compensates for their labour by creating an audience for advertisers. These audiences are valuable because they come with very complex contexts, specific use cases for this particular software, but increasingly also social networks and trails of cookies indicating numerous products they may be interested in. This system is most pronounced in the large corporate social networks who exist to mine your social life for information that could be exploited by marketers. One must beg the question, who is the “user” in this context? If the marketer pays Google or Facebook for your information and access to you, are social networks tools used by marketers? What does that make those of us who contribute our social structures to these networks? Clearly we, or at least our information, are products. Products bought and sold like any other, to be exploited by those with the means to pay. To describe this relation I introduce the term (non)user.The (non)user is less user and more product. The social network is a tool used by marketers to access you, while the social network is a tool you use to access and interact with other people. How do we balance these two potentially conflicting relations? One may argue that this is fair game: We get access to the network for free to compensate us for providing valuable data to marketers. This is true enough, but it is an open question as to whether the network has enough social value to warrant the lack of privacy and exposure to marketers the (non)users take on. For these networks to be sustainable, they must get more out than they put in (be profitable), thus the marketers must be paying quite well. The fact that the marketer’s pay shifts the role of the user towards being a product. We can even imagine that the interface we (non)users are exposed to is not a tool at all, but an addictive spectacle designed to keep us sharing as much as possible. It’s like a slot machine, but instead of feeding it money, you feed it a continuously updated representation of your social life. The social network never really pays out though; the (non)user is content to sit and enjoy the spectacle.

What does this mean for the design of such a system? The design must find a mid-point where it simultaneously looks like a tool and has valuable functionality, while at the same time exists to extract value from our behaviour in the system. If the design was too much spectacle it may be too overtly addictive and lead to bad press and an exodus of users. If the design was too functional to the (non)user, it may interfere with the value of the network for marketers, for example by allowing users to opt-out of aspects of the terms of service or keeping certain aspects of their social-life private. The enemy of social networks is privacy, and thus their systems are designed to prop up the illusion of privacy.

We can imagine the (non)user in other contexts. Take the increasing centralized control tech companies like Apple enforce. Much of this enforcement happens under the guise of “piracy protection”. iPhones are capable of bluetooth peer to peer file transfer that allows transfer between devices without going through a network. Despite this being a standard technology, the bluetooth transfer of files between an iPhone and non-iPhone is not possible. It would be too easy for someone to download music off piratebay, put it on their Nokia, and transfer it to their friends with iPhones. This is an undesired use-case for Apple, because they want you to use the iTunes store, even for gratis content, so they can see what you like and what you may want to buy in the future. Even transferring files from one’s own machine to their iPhone involves agreeing to large terms of service documents, often in legalese. One must wonder why the functionality for the user is so limited in devices bought by the user. It’s the same reason as in social networks, the iPhone is a tool for extracting value from a (non)user.

It is not too difficult to speculate where this trend could lead. It’s possible that the revenues from marketers and online stores far exceeds the revenue from the user’s hardware purchase, if that is not already the case. The device becomes a mechanism to deliver third party content to the (non)user, and also to extract valuable social details of their life and preferences, all for the purpose of increasing their consumption. The mobile device starts to be less a tool a user buys to accomplish a task, and more the ultimate Consumer Appliance. It exists to facilitate consumption by providing virtual stores from which ephemeral information is bought in the form of books, movies, apps, etc., where those purchases are initiated by highly seductive and targeted marketing materials. These Consumer Appliances may not even be bought or owned. Clearly the best way for a corporation to control the function of a device is to lease it to you. This way a (non)user will have less expectation that they are the one in control of the device. In fact, even by using an iPhone, the ‘user’ is implicitly agreeing to Apple terms of service. This is not to say that other tech companies don’t play the same game, and Google’s unique intersection between social networking, mobile devices and search put it in a very strong position to lead in the development of the Consumer Appliance.

We can project even further, where the Consumer Appliance looses any particular functionality. It’s not a phone or a tablet, it’s the centre of your life. It’s in your house and your car, and even perched on your head. Its more like an accessory, like jewelry, than a tool. You don’t think to use it, it’s just always there. Through it you buy everything you need and socialize around that activity of consumption. It knows where you are, what you are doing and perhaps even why. It makes suggestions for every choice in your life, from where to live, how to find a job, even with whom to have a relationship, all made in the context of your past behaviour.

Why would one live their life through such a device? Partly because the transition was so slow and gradual that we did not even realize when we shifted between being users to being (non)users. We bought into the Consumer Appliance because (1) everyone else who we look up to was doing it; we want to be normal and it helps us feel like we belong; (2) it’s a signal we use to show our status, proof of our social value and power. In fact, these are the same reasons why we consume anything beyond our immediate needs. The Consumer Appliance must mirror our compulsion to consume, even in the absence of a function (beyond consumption itself).

So how could we avoid such a future? How do we stop computers from becoming Consumer Appliances that we lease from hardware manufacturers who only exist as gateways between us and giant information (content) providers? It seems we need a counter point to consumerism itself. Rather than finding social value and belonging in consumption, we should find it in production. For programmers Free Software does this very well on both sides, but can be harder for end users to integrate and find social value and power in those communities. Some Free Software projects are very good at recruiting those with less technical skill to design, translate, document, etc.. Perhaps the growth of the maker movement marks a deliberate shift through the emphasis on literacy, creativity, and sharing, outside of the context of a market, or at least emphasizing a local, niche, artisan market over a mass-market.

When you choose a technology, ask yourself: What does this contribute to my life and the life of those that I care about? How does it effect the rest of the world? Are there other ways in which I can feel like I belong and have social value without consuming? How does the provider of the technology want me to behave and why?