Producers or Consumers: Two Ways of Looking at Technology


Bo Dahlbom
The Swedish Research Institute for Information Technology (SITI)
The IT-University of Göteborg

Abstract. In People or Computers: Three Ways of Looking at Information Systems, Markku Nurminen discusses three perspectives: the systems-theoretical, the socio-technical and the humanistic. The three perspectives express a fundamental dichotomy between people and technology. Here I want to introduce a fourth perspective, the service perspective. And I will argue that in the early 21st century another dichotomy is appearing. In a society which is becoming more and more consumer oriented, technology is no longer only, or even mainly, a work tool but also a consumer object. Society itself is beginning to be divided along a new dimension, that of producers and consumers. Technology is used both for production and consumption of services.

The last time I read Markku Nurminen’s People or Computers: Three Ways of Looking at Information Systems, must have been about 10 years ago, and what I remembered was the three perspectives on information technology – the systems-theoretical, the socio-technical and the humanistic – as well as Nurminen’s general arguments in favor of the last of these. Now, that I read the book again I was struck by the many interesting philosophical details on perspectives, science, society and technology that run through the whole book, and I appreciate very much the historical overviews of the development of computer technology use. But in spite of this, it is the perspectives I want to focus on here, and I shall argue that they have already lost much of their relevance. Today there are other perspectives on technology that are more important.

In the 20th century, technology was developing on a grand scale and was threatening humankind with extinction: atom bombs, chemical pollution, nuclear meltdowns, nuclear waste, global warming. We seemed to be faced, again and again, with a choice between people or technology. Computers threatened to turn society into a complex automatic system with no real use for people, but demanding powerful control of people in order to stop them from sabotaging the system. In discussing different perspectives on computer technology, Nurminen’s choice was therefore obvious: people or computers. In Computers in Context (Dahlbom and Mathiassen 1993), we used the same dichotomy – the romantic and the mechanistic world view – to define the basic conflicts of our discipline.

1 Three Perspectives

Much of Markku Nurminen’s research has been focused on the role of general perspectives, or paradigms, in information systems research. It is an important topic. Your paradigm will determine the sort of questions you ask, the sort of answers you accept, and in general what you find important to examine and investigate. The role of perspectives is particularly important in an area that undergoes rapid and radical changes. In order to acknowledge and deal with such changes you may very well have to change your perspective, something that is not easily done. Paradigms in science change, of course, but normally such changes demand a generation shift. Too much is invested in a paradigm for it to be easily abandoned. The social inertia of paradigms is a problem for a discipline having as its subject matter a technology the use of which develops rapidly enough to demand new perspectives almost every ten years.

Nurminen is well aware of this problem, identifying as he does three perspectives covering a period of only three decades of computer technology use. Early in the book, he points to the importance of the time dimension and a historical view on technology and its use. He notes that such a perspective is often absent in computer science and in social engineering attempts (p. 16f). He observes that the three perspectives that he discusses “fall into a certain chronological order.” They have developed partly in response to problems actualized by the perspectives themselves and partly in response to the introduction of new technology.

Nurminen wants to convince us that there are indeed alternative perspectives available when looking at human beings using computer technology. If we develop our abilities to use different perspectives we will become better at developing the technology to suit our interests, better at understanding the consequences of introducing the technology, and better at communicating with others about the use of technology. In the book he looks closely at three perspectives: the systems-theoretical, the socio-technical and the humanistic. While stressing the importance of acknowledging all three perspectives, Nurminen wants to argue in favor of the last of these.

When computers were first introduced as calculating machines, in the Second World War, they invited a systems-theoretical perspective. Computers are complex technical systems with a number of different functional units operating together under the control of an operating system, making possible the implementation of a great variety of complex software systems. When people like Norbert Wiener realized the potential of these machines as control systems for other systems, the systems-theoretical perspective gained even more force. When later computers began to be used for administrative processing in the early 1960s, this perspective was adapted to serve the new use. The choice was obvious considering the intellectual climate of the time. The 1960s was a decade of operations research and systems engineering, and so people began to speak of information systems, management information systems, systems development, and so on.

As long as computers were calculating machines or control units for technical systems, this systems-theoretical perspective was unquestioned. But when computers began to be used as information systems, the role and place of human beings in relation to these systems became a topic of discussion. And when you want to acknowledge the role of human beings in the operation of technical systems, the simple solution is to extend the notion of technical system to include people. Thus people began to speak of socio-technical systems. In information systems research this is exemplified by Börje Langefors in his definition of information systems to include people interpreting the data of the computer systems turning data into information (Langefors 1995). This move created terminological confusion, of course. With Langefors’s definition you cannot go on speaking of buying an information system, of the cost of an information system, you cannot speak of SAP as an information system. But people did.

When, in the 1980s, computers began to be used as tools for word processing, book-keeping, and playing games, the systems-theoretical perspective seemed even less attractive, and more radical revi­sions were necessary. Now, people began to speak of computers and software as tools. And they began to extend this perspective to the older use of computers as information systems. Nurminen calls this perspective the humanistic perspective, and introduces the notion of human-scale information systems, systems that are more like tools than systems. This adds to the terminological confusion, I think.

When most of your time is spent with office software, you are of course using technical systems, but not really information systems. If we want to speak of the use of information systems as tool use, why not begin to speak of information tools rather than information systems? The problem here is partly, of course, that it is easier to change the definition than to change the name. Once you have an important business developing information systems, you have to retain that name. And when in addition you have departments of information systems, journals of information systems, book series in information systems, conferences on information systems, and so on, it may seem like a good idea to keep the name but change the definition, but it makes it more difficult to convert people to the new perspective.

The use of technology changes. When computers began to be used as tools in office work, the discipline of information systems did not really take any interest in this new use. Instead, people like Nurminen were inspired by this new use to develop new perspectives on the old use. What we have seen happen since the late 1980s is rather the other way around. The use of computers as office tools have become standardized and the personal computers depersonalized. Today they are part of document management systems and the systems-theoretical perspective is still strong.

Of course, Nurminen wrote his book about ten years before the Internet revolution, and with that revolution, when computer technology converged with telecom and media, new perspectives were introduced. Telephones rely on what has been called “the world’s largest machine”, the telephone system. This system is incredibly important and fascinating to the engineers in telecom companies and telecom operators. But when you use a telephone you seldom worry about that system, and you nor­mally know nothing about it. In telephony the natural perspective on using the technology is to speak of telephone services. With Internet such a service was applied to the use of computer technology.

Today, in the early 2000s, if we were to choose a concept to characterize the use of information technology, system is not the first one we would come up with. In this time, when the consumer market dominates our thinking and everyone is focusing on business opportunities and customers, systems make way for services, and we speak of information services, networked based services, web services, Internet services, mobile services, and so on. Thus there is a fourth perspective on the use of computer technology and, indeed, it was around already in the late 1980s, when some people began to speak of computers as media. From systems to tools to services is quite a long journey. Where are we going next? Well, we shall have to leave that question for another occasion. Here I want to look a bit deeper into the service perspective, what it is and what it means.

2 The Scandinavian Approach

The three perspectives distinguished by Nurminen played an important role in the debate raised by the so-called Scandinavian approach to systems development (Bansler 1987). This approach had its origin in Kristen Nygaard´s work on action research in the early 1970s, working with trade unions, aiming at giving trade unions power in the development of information systems. To Nygaard´s many young disciples at Aarhus, this approach was very much a continuation of the 1960s revolutionary youth movement. For a couple of decades, in the 1970s and the 1980s, this approach continued to develop a romantic infatuation with the collective resources of industrial workers and the skills of the individual industrial worker. While industrial work was quickly disappearing in this part of the world, partly because of automation, partly because of lower salaries in the more recently industrialized countries of the Far East, the Scandinavian approach continued to cultivate a romantic idea of the working class and its struggle against oppressive technology. They were not alone in doing so, of course.

Nurminen developed an original theoretical position within our field, but it was a position that was in many ways close to the position of the Scandinavian approach. The humanistic perspective is close to the perspective of the Utopia project (Ehn 1988) with its defense of typographical tool skills and the importance of what Bo Göranzon had called tacit knowledge. And Nurminen shared with the Scandinavian approach a romantic attachment to industrial work. Underlying his discussion in the book is a perspective on work, never really spelled out, as producing goods in factories. Computers are used by the workers in the production and in the administration of work.

I find it difficult to understand the attraction of this perspective on work. In less than 20 years we have definitely left industrial society for a service society getting more and more of its identity from the consumer market and less and less from the production factories of the 20th century. Indeed, we had left industrial society already in the 1980s, only that many of us, Nurminen included, for some reason did not want to acknowledge this. This was also true of the Scandinavian approach to computer technology use, called ”Computer support for cooperative work”, where ”work” typically meant just ”operative” work, as distinguished from communication, talk at work (Schmidt, 1994).

Nurminen comments on the ideas that were becoming popular in the 1980s that we were moving into an information society, but he is skeptical of these ideas. Commenting on the economic sectors agriculture, manufacturing, services and information work, he says: “Symbols themselves cannot satisfy our basic needs; a hungry person needs real food.” (p. 170). And he thinks it is a mistake to view information work “as a separate and independent sector of its own” (p. 171). Instead, one should treat information work as related to and serving productive and administrative work.

Looking back on our discipline in the 1980s, it is obvious how work oriented it was. And what an old-fashioned view it had on work! Nurminen is no exception to the rule. The three perspectives discussed by him are perspectives on factory work. The choice indicated in the title, between people and computers, is a choice between factory workers and computers.

3 Users

Computer technology was introduced into a society dominated by industrial work. In Sweden, in the 1960s, half of the working population was employed as factory workers. A great deal of this work was still craft like, involving the use of relatively simple hand tools. But in some industrial branches automation was already well under way. Machines were replacing tools and workers were either being laid off or being reduced to pushing buttons on machines. With computer technology this automation really took off as robots entered the industries in the 1970s. The critical discussion in these days was very much a discussion about dequalification of work as tools were replaced with machines.

The systems-theoretical perspective is a machine perspective, the humanistic perspective is a tool perspective. Both tools and machines invite us to think of technology as something we use. For tools this is obvious, for machines it is sometimes not so obvious. A tool is inert without the human hand that steers it into action. Machines are automatic tools and the more automatic they are the less of a user they need. When all we have to do is push a button, we can hardly be said to be users. Complex machines are systems which we overview, adjust the operation of, but since they are largely automatic they tend to manage on their own without a user to guide their action. The smaller the machine, the more like a tool, and the more natural it is to say that we use it.

The systems-theoretical perspective is primarily a management perspective on work. You are looking from the outside into the operation of your organization and the workers tending the machines are easily reduced to parts in the machine. With more automation they could be replaced by real machine parts. The tool perspective is a worker perspective from within the organization, attributing importance to the individual worker (yourself) and your cooperation with the other workers to a joint operation of some sort. In both cases we can speak of the workers as users of technology, but the systems-theoretical perspective invites a management attitude where really the technology is using the workers rather than the other way around. (Perhaps managers experience themselves as using the system, including the workers, like a tool to achieve the goals of the company strategy.)

When we raise our eyes to the longer historical development of technology use our understanding of that use will be more adequate. But Nurminen´s historical perspective is relatively limited. Even though he briefly comments on the larger historical changes brought on by information technology, they play no role in his book. He does not consider such larger historical changes as those brought on by the postmodern movement of the 1980s and the changes then going on in moving from an industrial, work oriented society to a postindustrial, consumer society.

4 Service Society

Thanks to technical evolution in the 20th century, our societies now have a fantastic capacity for well organized production. In most branches we produce more that we can consume. This ought to mean that we could work less, but in reality it means the opposite. The better we become at producing, the tougher the competition, and the harder we have to work to sell our products. In a market economy, companies will have to focus more and more of their attention on sales and services. Companies are forced further and further out on the market to protect old customers and hunt for new ones. When products flood the market, services will have to be invented to add customer value to the products. Industrial societies become service societies.

In the 1960s, sociologists like Daniel Bell (1973) began saying that we were leaving industrial society, moving into a postindustrial service society. Others pointed to the growing amount of information work, speaking about the information revolution. Something was obviously happening and looking back it is easy to see the role of computer technology in this “revolution.” Computers entered the factories of industrial society, automated work, emptying the factories of people. People instead found jobs in the services, in education, healthcare, childcare, media, marketing, hotels, restaurants, and lots of new kinds of services. In a country like Sweden, more than 80 % of the working population now is employed in services, in education, healthcare, tourism, administration.

When computers helped automate factory work it also helped increase office work. People left the factories to go to the offices to work with information systems. Offices grew even more with a second wave of office technology: personal computers, laser printers, copying machines, and local networks. Office work consisted in the administration of both production and services. And office work meant a continuation of factory thinking. So, the first decades of service society did not mean the development so much of services and service work, as of administration and office work. And, information systems was the discipline developing methods and theories for this kind of work.

In a service society focus is on services and their consumption rather than on goods and their production. As service society developed, its focus moved from the offices of service organization to the market place and service delivery. Services are provided to people, goods are mass-produced in factories. In a society dominated by craft, work is more service-oriented than goods-oriented. The production of a tailor-made dress is more an example of providing someone a service – sewing a dress for someone – than of producing a dress. In the process of industrialization, the production of goods moves from people’s homes to factories. Now, the production returns to people again, as goods are equipped with more and more services which are tailored to suit the needs and wishes of the consumers.

The richer a society becomes, the more it can focus on experiences. We use goods to provide services to cause experiences. With technical development and increasing competence, our society turns into an experience society. Machine technology brought on the industrial revolution by mechanizing agriculture and moving the focus of economic activity to the factories for production. Computer technology brought on the office revolution by automating factory production and moving the focus of economic activity to administrative office work. Information technology is now automating administration and initiating a service revolution moving the focus of economic activity to services in the market place.

5 Service Thinking

Information systems were something you developed or bought to serve as the infrastructure of your organization, the backbone of management control. In the telecom world, customers are provided with telephone services. First those are very simple and consist in simple telephony, an open line. Later, that open line will be taken for granted and it is the variety of things you can do with a telephone that attracts. With the convergence of computer, telecom and media technology the move towards services becomes stronger. Rather than using information technology to rebuild your organization, that technology will provide occasional services to be bought and consumed in a much more flexible way.

Information systems are based on the administrative idea of having overview, being in control, knowing what goes on. The idea is to build a storage where all the information needed is available, well organized and easy to find. Information services is the idea of being given the information needed at the time when you need it. It is the idea of having a servant who does all the hard work of collecting information, having overview, etc, so that you don’t have to worry about that. All you have to do is ask for and receive the services.

When organizations and administration grew, the assistants of more craft like offices turned into administrators, demanding information from professionals rather than supporting them with services in their work. The change from systems to services will reverse this development, administrators becoming assistants again. Information systems are systems for administrators. Information services are for professionals, managers, and consumers. When focus is shifting from administration to customer relationships, from office to market, when administration is more and more automated or outsourced, the company will focus on services rather than on systems.

Systems thinking (Checkland, 1981) is dominated by a focus on organization, structure, processes and administration. Service thinking is instead focusing on individuals, actions, results and support. Information systems are technology support for bureaucratic, factory organizations. Information services are technology support for individuals on a consumer market. Information systems are specified and developed in a complex process involving users, and the systems continue to rely on their users for their identity and maintenance. Information services are made available on the consumer market to be bought or discarded. The individuals using the services are not engaged in developing them; they don’t own them and they have no responsibility for them.

The Scandinavian approach to information systems was very much concerned with user participation, with working closely with the users giving to them the power and responsibility for developing their own systems. With service thinking this changes. The users of systems turn into consumers of services and they cannot be bothered with the development and functioning of their information technology support. This change is natural. Mature technologies tend to disappear from our view. Lighting a room used to be a lot of work. Now it lights up automatically as you enter. The service of light comes with the apartment. You take it for granted as you take the floor for granted.

Information systems play an important role in the bureaucratic organizations so typical of industrial society. Those organizations will not disappear in the 21st century, but their sales and service functions will become more dominant and information technology support will have to be viewed from their perspective rather than from the perspective of administration and management control.

6 Services

A service is something that someone does for you or to you. Services used to be provided by servants. A servant is someone who typically performs such tasks that you could do yourself but for some reason prefer not to do. You would rather pay someone to clean your house, wash your clothes, cook your food, nurse your children, manage your garden, and so on. Such household services constitute a huge part of our lives, but there are lots of other services, of course, such as healthcare services, educational services, administrative services, marketing services, and so on. Some of these services involve close interaction between provider and receiver, but this does not hold for most of them.

Digital services are more like products than other services. They are like the light you get when you press the button, or the cooling you get when you start the A/C unit. To provide a digital service means to design a system, develop software, and implement it on an appropriate hardware platform. The technical system will provide the service, often with some help from the consumer, unless the service is wholly automatic. The service may very well be interactive, but then only in the sense that the consumer interacts with the technical system. The consumer is then given standardized alternatives to choose from, but there is no possibility of getting a “personal” service, in the sense of deviations from the pre-programmed standards.

When you have a service perspective on digital services, then you don’t simply see them as output from the system you have in focus. On the contrary, the system is secondary and the services are in focus. Designing the services you try to see what they mean to the consumers, how they fit into their activities and lives. Designing digital services is more like designing products than providing services and we must learn from product design and development. Systems development changes into service packaging and our old systems development methods will have to be changed into service packaging methods.

Interactive services with human service providers normally demand cultivation, i.e., the service provider must adapt and develop the service in order to fit the changing wishes and desires of the receiver of the service. Digital services are like products in that they have no human service provider and they can therefore be designed and packaged like products. They can be mass produced and mass distributed even more easily than physical products. In spite of this, Internet providers and telecom operators have had great difficulties in packaging and distributing Internet services and mobile services. This has become a much debated issue, particularly as concerns mobile services. Telecom operators have been relatively slow in offering their customers simple, well defined services, preferring instead to establish more craft-like relations to them, opening up parts of their systems, asking the customer to build their own service packages.

Customer orientation means getting to know your customer by interacting with them enough to learn their needs and desires. But customer orientation does not mean constant interaction, not even when the customer demands this, but it means packaging your offering so that it plugs into the customer’s activities, solving customer problems, satisfying needs, without undue complications and bother. Customer orientation can be industrialized, standardized.

A craft society is dominated by services. Goods are produced manually as parts of services. When the manual production of goods is industrialized it is a long and difficult process. Standards have to be defined, machines have to be built, and products have to be designed, developed and packaged. Distribution systems have to be invented. And all of these things have to fit together in a huge, complex, well functioning system. In industrial society, services remain as crafts. To some extent they disappear, being replaced by goods, but except for that they remain relatively untouched. Education, healthcare, bank services, hotel and restaurant services, they all continue as before. We tend to praise this, shunning the standardized versions as less adequate. But services will go the same way as the production of goods, of course. And with information technology we have already come a long way. Services are beginning to be industrialized, standardized, and packaged. Soon we will look back on education involving direct communication with a teacher in the same longing way as our grandfathers used to remember the hand sewn shoes of their youth.

7 Consumers

Nurminen’s perspectives on technology are the perspectives of a work oriented society. The world is different now with a growing consumer market (now 70% of the GNP in the US). We continue to work certainly, but our role as consumers is becoming more and more important. Children, teenagers, retired people make up the majority of the population in most Western countries, and they are no longer invisible. In this world we need to develop new perspectives on technology.

Tools are used by craftsmen to provide services to their masters. When I cut your hair, sweep your floor, fry your eggs, I am a user of technology, but what is your relation to technology? You are a consumer of the services provided by my use of the technology. But even if I don’t have servants, I am a consumer too. I don’t cut my own hair, and when I want to watch television, I have to push a few buttons, but I cannot really be said to use the television. Lots of other people, however, have used complex technology, tools and machines, to produce the programs I watch and broadcast them to my television set. They are users of technology. I am only a consumer. In a consumer oriented society, we need to develop a consumer perspective on technology to complement the work oriented, producer perspective.

Sometimes these two perspectives, the producer perspective and the consumer perspective, merge as when I use technology to service myself, and self-service is something of a moral norm in a work oriented society. We all work to produce goods and then we use those goods to provide services to ourselves, self-service.

8 Producers or Consumers

Technology has made modern life incredibly comfortable. We get water by turning a tap, light by pushing a button, heat by turning up the thermostat. We are comfortably seated while traveling, there is always food in the refrigerator, and a meal can be put together in minutes using freezer and microwave oven. Tasks we had to perform ourselves in the past are now provided as services by technology. Of course, kings and nobility who can afford servants have always lived like this; have always been spared the boring everyday toils. But technology has now given us all (in the middle class) a life like kings.

It all began with tools. With tools we could solve everyday practical problems and increase our chances of survival. But the tools also gave us more things to do. The more tools we invented the more tasks we got. For a long time tools were mainly working tools. But then came the machines. With machines we could automate the tools, and liberate ourselves from work. The 20th century was a cen­tury of automation. With more and more automation, there will be less and less for us to do. Automa­tion has liberated us from physical labor. For health and well-being we now invent tools for playing with. We play soccer, lift weights, play golf and tennis – to stay healthy. But those tools can of course be automated as well. Eventually, we will be able to trim our muscles without using them and keep our heart and lungs in good condition without doing something special. It will all be done automatically.

Instead of playing soccer, we can watch soccer games in a world of experiences rather than activities. Instead of messing around with our own incompetent tool use, we can experience the very best professionals performing their, technologically enhanced, outstanding feats. In a world that is becoming more and more automated, there will be an incredible abundance of technologically advanced services providing exciting and rewarding experiences for all of us to consume. Already the experi­ence industry dominates computer technology and we have really seen nothing yet. (Most of the money to finance research and development of computer technology used to come from the American war machine. This changed in 1992, when the experience industry took over this role as leading financier.)

With more and more advanced and easy to use technology, we develop societies where we don’t have to worry about the practicalities of life. We can focus on more interesting aspects of life, on experiences or ends rather than on the means for reaching those ends. The irony of progress is that in this process we run the risk of creating a society of consumers rather than producers, a society in which many of us have nothing worthwhile to do and thus find life more and more meaningless. The good life is a life of balance between production and consumption, between effort and rewards. It is a life of achievement, not just consumption. That balance may be different in different times and cultures, but it is difficult for us, in our culture, to believe that human beings can be happy without achievements.

We come out of a society in which most of us were active most of the time, using tools and experiencing the results of our activity. It seems as if we are entering a society in which we will spend more time being passive consumers of services providing us with experiences. Some of us will be producers, some of us only consumers. Automata are wonderful, but we need tools to live an active life. And, is not the good life an active life? Should we not develop better tools for activities rather than automata for experiences? Would it not be a better society if we had an activity industry rather than an experience industry? Or, do I only think so because of our heritage? Am I stuck in a romantic conception of activity related to the romantic view of work that we find in the Scandinavian approach?

Be that as it may. It is still true that the scene has changed in the 15 years since the publication of Nurminen’s book. The choice then was between people or machines in a world where human beings were too easily reduced to factors in complex technical systems. The choice now is between producers and consumers, between using technology to produce something and using technology to consume something. It is not a choice between people and technology, and not really between different sorts of technology. It is a choice between different forms of life, different life styles. How that choice is made, and who makes the choice, is a much bigger issue (cf. Dahlbom 2003) and really needs a whole book. It is time for Nurminen to revisit his old theme and update it. I would look forward to read another book by Nurminen on perspectives on technology.


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