The user as network

Karen E.C. Levy


The user has become central to the way technology is conceptualized, designed, and studied in sociotechnical research and human-computer interaction; recently, non-users have also become productive foci of scholarly analysis. This paper argues that a focus on individualized users and non-users is incomplete, and conflates multiple modes of complex relation among people, institutions, and technologies. Rather than the use/non-use conception, I argue for conceptualizing users as networks: as constellations of power relations and institutional entanglements, mediated through technologies. To illustrate, I offer a case study of Nexafed, a tamperproof formulation of pseudoephedrine. The market for Nexafed seems nonexistent in traditional use/non-use terms, but when we construe the user more broadly — as a network of interpersonal, legal, and institutional relationships, consisting of multiple modes of relation between people and technology — not only does the drug’s market make sense, but we also understand how new motivations (social shame, mistrust, robbery, gossip) can act as salient drivers of technology use. The Nexafed case illustrates the utility of a networked perspective to develop more nuanced theoretical understandings of use and non-use in sociotechnical relations, beyond the direct human-technology interface.

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