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by Jay Fienberg

Careful about making business the model for culture

posted: Jan 2, 2004 5:28:19 PM

Thoughtful post by Ross Mayfield on Many-2-Many, Users Drive Policy, that summarizes and/or links to a number of good posts and comments about technology and policy. (See also Joi Ito's subsequent We are not technological determinists.)

I think "users drive policy" is right-on, but am concerned that concepts like "users" and "tools" are themselves reflective of an actually "business drives policy" situation. In other words, are we talking about businesses that drive policy, but are nice to users and try to listen to them?

Such a model may be expedient today, because centralized business (through corporations and governments, i.e., not just private business) dominates policy making, and more decentralized-user-respecting businesses can, in the best cases, both tango with centralized concerns and shift policy making from centralized (today, usually bureaucratic) controls to a more participatory democracy of individuals and groups.

But, as we look more and more for policy and technology to intimately reflect or augment individual and group social interactions, I think we also have to ask if business itself is a kind of policy constraint. In other words, are we talking about business being part of every aspect of human interaction (at least technology enabled interaction)? Can the user drive business out of it?

Not that we don't need or want good business accessible to ourselves and even charged with stewardship of some things, but are we developing technology as an instrument of business (that abstracts us into users) or directly as an instrument of ourselves?

Maybe business is a useful way of insulating ourselves from our differences—it does put some common ground between us. Instead of being always for this or against that, we are all users. Business-wise, that seems to offer some unity.

But, I think we are looking for something more from technology (and always have been)—we want it to be like ourselves in each and all of our unreconcilably diverse individual and group identities and forms of self and collective expression. In other words, our consideration about technology and policy ultimately is a consideration about who we are, why we would choose to coexist (or at least tolerate it), and how we are going to play our instruments together.

I think we have to be careful about the way business provides an abstract and effectively over-simplified context for talking about technology and policy. I don't think we are ultimately talking about users and policies about tools or how users use them. I think we are talking about culture, which is not limited to definition within business services, but rather is a greater context in which they may appear.

(Note: I think Ross' post and the ones he links to are asking good questions and making good comments, but it all got me thinking about what are we creating when we look for ways to reach a common understanding in our diverse world.)

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Comment by: Ross Mayfield ·
posted: Jan 3, 2004 3:03:31 PM

Great thoughts. A good example of the business/personal tradeoff is in ownership of customer data. Even if a business doesn't have a solid reason for owning it today, there is a chance that it is an asset for an acquirer, so there is a strong incentive for holding the option. But if users are vigilant against first abuse and it is clear it will hamper the growth of the service from the outset or create conditions for competition, the value of the option declines.

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