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Roger Clarke's 'Digital Users / Usees'

The Digital User/ee: Consumer, Actor or Participant?

Notes in preparation for a presentation in the Research Center for IS Design (ITeG) at Universität Kassel, on 6 May 2015

Version of 24 April 2015

Roger Clarke **

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The 'digital business' and 'user, use and utility research' memes have at their core the concept of the digital user. This concept acknowledges that users can no longer be regarded as passive consumers, and takes advantage of their activity by capturing and exploiting it. The notion of the digital user doesn't yet perceive people as participants. It also overlooks the considerable number of circumstances in which people are 'usees' rather than 'users'.

This presentation reviews the dark side of current business models and the philosophy underlying them. It then discusses the notion of perspective in IS research, and the lack of attention to perspectives other than that of the corporation. It proposes adjustments to current approaches, in order to integrate the interests of people, and to avoid business inviting further rounds of impediments and active opposition by the people it deals with.


1. Introduction

We're experiencing yet another round of disruptive / transformative technologies. Leimeister et al. (2014) surveys the range of concepts that make up the present round, in particular Digital Society, Industry 4.0, Service-Led Economy and Co-Creation. These feature Mass Customisation, Context-Sensitivity, and the Use of Personal(ised) Devices in all Roles / BYOD.

This presentation questions a couple of aspects of the approach adopted by this school of thought. Specifically, business organisations are encouraged to focus on their own interests, with individuals still outside the frame of reference. The image of the passive consumer is gradually fading from the scene and being replaced by recognition that individuals are active. But individuals' activities are to be harnessed and controlled. Does this exclusion of individuals from participation work for individuals? And does it even work for business?

As a springboard, it is suggested that the following quotations are indicative of the view of people held by contemporary innovative business:

This presentation suggests that, despite the progression from passive-consumer to active-consumer, and from user to actor, the conceptualisation of people by business is still seriously deficient. It is contended that these attitudes aren't satisfactory for people; and that they aren't good enough to satisfy the needs of business and government either.

Further, it appears to me that the 'digital business' and 'user, use and utility research' notions both adopt the perspective of business to the effective exclusion of the perspectives of individuals. Even though individuals have been upgraded from variously human resources and consumer prey, to recognise them as 'actors', they are still not being perceived as 'participants'.

This presentation identifies a range of concerns about the relationship between business and people. To support the generalisation, some examples are drawn from the fields of smart meters and of social media. Consideration is then given to the notion of 'perspective' in research, and ways are suggested in which IS research can lead business towards approaches that are both more inclusive and more effective.

2. Longstanding Phenomena

In order to encompass both the private and public sectors, I'll generally refer to 'organisations', and use 'business' to refer to 'what organisations do', whether or not the organisation is a for-profit corporation.

Let me start by identifying a series of contemporary phenomena that are in conflict with the notion of a symbiotic relationship between organisations and individuals. The first couple of these are anything but new, but they are highly persistent.

2.1 Exercise of Power

Organisations have market and/or institutional power and they commonly take advantage of that power in their dealings with individuals. Examples include:

2.2 Behaviour Manipulation

Organisations use carrot and stick / incentives and disincentives to cause individual behaviour to align with the organisation's interests. For example:

3. Current Phenomena

A number of further features are inherent in notions such as Digital Society and Industry 4.0.

3.1 Datafication

This term was actually in use in the mid-1990s in relation to tele-centres in rural areas. It was also adopted by the sciences and humanities during c. 2000-2010. Since 2013, however, it has been appropriated as part of the 'big data' mantra (Cukier & Mayer-Schoenberger 2013). Excitement surrounds the idea of quantifying things that we didn't previously think to quantify. Human beings' locations, and their thoughts, attitudes and feelings as revealed by social media are prominent among the examples given. To that can be added data donations by individuals who stream measurements of their vital signs into the cloud. The possibly-emergent Internet of Things is trumpeted as a near-future source of voluminous data that will be monetised somehow.

Key aspects of the datafication of people include:

3.2 Servification

During the 1980s, the availability of personal computing, and along with them printers, and gradually bulletin boards, had a greatly democratising effect, because individuals could capture text, distribute it, and communicate with one another. The argument has been run that the collapse of the Soviet Union became inevitable, because PCs provided the technology to implement the 'samizdat press' and hence the lies on which the regime had been built could no longer be sustained (Clarke 1994).

During the current decade, several factors are combining to destroy the individual freedoms that have been enjoyed for the last 2-3 decades. Leaving aside the gross constraints arising from the dominance of national security extremism since 2001, the following technological factors need to be appreciated:

4. Business Process not People Process

Common to all of the phenomena identified above is the idea that processes are about business, not about people. For example, Business Cases, Cost-Benefit Analyses and Risk Assessments are undertaken from the viewpoint of the system sponsor. They are not inclusive of the viewpoints of individuals involved in or affected by the scheme. There is seldom any meaningful consultative process with those individuals. In addition, it is rare for separate analyses to be undertaken in order to ensure that the views of individuals.

Corollaries of business-orientation to the exclusion of individual interests include the following:

'User-, use-, utility-centricity' is not 'User-driven' and is not participative in design, only in the choice to adopt or not, and to use or not. Organsations rely on marketing techniques to harness fashion and achieve bandwagon / network effects, with the intention of reducing individuals' 'choice' to a necessity. The discovery of 'co-modelling' by Kagermann et al. (2012) is quite breathtaking - "the human is the starting-point for the formulation of requirements". It is as though four decades of systems analysis theory and practice never happened, particularly participative analysis.

5. Case Studies

The contentions in the preceding section can be criticised as being abstract generalisations. So it's important that I present a few concrete examples that show various of these phenomena in action.

(1) Smart Meters

(Yesudas & Clarke 2014)

(2) Consumer-Oriented Social Media (COSM)

(Clarke several)

(3) NFC-Chip Payment

Imposed, without risk assessment from the card-holders' perspective
The design, at least in Australia, is seriously hostile to the consumer interest (Clarke 2010)

6. The Notion of 'Perspective' in IS Research


Particularly, since the recognition of interpretivism as a legitimate and relevant concept, we've accepted that researchers bring their orientations, perceptions and biases with them, and reflect them in their formulation of research questions and the construction of their research designs.

We discuss many aspects of research, including unit of study, population, and sampling frame; but we seldom discuss the perspective that underlies and is embedded within the activity.

Examples of inherent 'business perspective' in Brenner et al. (2014) include:

My contention is that perspectives other than that of the organisation need to be reflected. Examples of the kinds of alternative perspectives that need to be considered are grouped into three categories.

6.1 User Perspectives

The term 'user' is frequently encountered, but it is not always clearly defined.

Organisation-Internal Users since admin computing began

Partner-Internal Users since IOS began

External Users since EOS began (ATMs, EFTPOS, ...)

So is 'the user' really an appropriate term to apply? Wouldn't 'the used' be more descriptive?

[Prosumer here?]

Of course the high costs of customisation to specific needs preclude each person imposing their own highly individualised perspective on designs. On the other hand, the Principle of Requisite Variety suggests that organisations need to identify at least the major categories relevant to the circumstances.

Examples of segmentation that are frequently recognised are:

6.2 Usee Perspectives

Not all people who are affected by a system are users of it. The term 'usees' has long been available to refer to such individuals. The fact that it is uncommon, and has an air of novelty about it bears testament to the failure of organisations to recognise the legitimacy of the usee perspective.

Examples include ...

6.3 Broader Perspectives

Although the primary focus of this presentation is on individuals, the notion of perspective os much broader. Examples of other perspectives that need to be adopted include those of communities and societies, and those of industry sectors and value-chains, sub-national regions, national economies, and supra-national regions. Beyond that are other more abstract realms such as the biosphere and the troposphere (because it is only at that point that the impact and implications of information systems for climate change can be meaningfully studied).

7. The Challenge for the Discipline

MIS and WI can choose to remain business-oriented. They can continue to treat individuals as being outside the frame of reference, following variants of the dictum well-known to us all: 'universities would be nice places if it wasn't for the students'.

If we do that, then the problem of impediments to adoption will remain. They would mean certain death for large numbers of innovative organisations. They would ensure that the second-movers and the lucky innovators gain the market share and after that the revenue and the super-profits.

If that suits the needs of powerful players, that's what will happen. But in that case, UUU research has to be seen as just another placebo, like the 'Business Ethics' and 'Corporate Social Responsibility' movements before it.

Alternatively, we can conceive the discipline and profession differently. MIS and WI could be seen as special cases, and indeed limited and self-limiting cases. The discipline and profession could style itself as IS or IM, and embrace multiple perspectives, and seek integration of individuals inside the frame of reference rather than placing them outside it.

8. Conclusions

My contentions are that the discpline:


Clarke R. (1994) 'Information Technology: Weapon of Authoritarianism or Tool of Democracy?' Proc. World Congress, Int'l Fed. of Info. Processing, Hamburg, September 1994, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2006) 'A Major Impediment to B2C Success is ... the Concept 'B2C'' Keynote Address, Proc. ICEC'06, Fredericton NB, Canada, 14-16 August 2006, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2007) 'eCollaboration - Some Looming Impediments' Notes for the closing Plenary Panel Session at the 20th Bled eCommerce Conference, 4-6 June 2007, at

Clarke R. (2008) ''B2C Distrust Factors in the Prosumer Era' Keynote Address, Proc. Collecter IberoAmerica eCommerce Conf., Madrid, June 2008, pp. 1-12, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2010) The Dangers of Contactless Payment: Visa PayWave and MasterCard PayPass NFC-Chip Schemes' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, October 2010, at

Clarke R. (2011) 'The Cloudy Future of Consumer Computing' Proc. 24th Bled eConference, June 2011, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2013) 'The Supervisor's Dilemma: Is Reconciliation Possible between the Candidate's Needs and the Supervisor's Integrity?' Proc. 26th Bled eConference, Slovenia, June 2013, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2014) 'The Prospects for Consumer-Oriented Social Media' Proc. 27th Bled eConference, June 2014, and Organizacija 47, 4 (2014) 219-230, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2015) 'The Concept of Entity Perspective and Its Implications for IS Research' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, April 2015, at

Cukier, Kenneth; Mayer-Schoenberger, Viktor (2013). "The Rise of Big Data". Foreign Affairs, (May/June): 28-40. Retrieved 24 January 2014, at


This seminar is part of my preparation for a Keynote at the Australasian Conference in Information Systems (ACIS) in December 2015, and for a panel session at ICIS later that month.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in Cyberspace Law & Policy at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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