Mel Brennan

CEO , The XP Movement


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Is there a difference between being a citizen and being a consumer? Does it matter?

I was told by my son's teachers that his school couldn't emphasize the tools of a citizen life during the school day because rigorous national and state standards left little time for "extras." Then one day he came home with an extracurricular economics booklet that defined him, my wife and I, and his sister not as citizens, but as consumers. Not as human beings who in the course of their citizen day might have consumer interests and behaviors, but, definitively, as consumers, a way of seeing Self, Other and the Group from which everything else sprung. Of course, we experience this way of describing ourselves from lots of outlets, everyday.

Question: is there a difference between being a citizen and being a consumer? Does it matter?

  • Feb 26 2011: I agree with the implication being made here in some comments that the labels of user, consumer, developer, even citizen are related to context (citizen in the political environment, consumer in the economic system, etc.). I think though, if I'm not mistaken, that Mel is pointing to, and concerned about, some kind of lopsided priority underlying his question that suggests that to the education system at least, there is no time for considerations of our role as citizens, but there is as consumers... I kind of agree with him on this score. Therefore my strict answers to his specific questions would be yes, and yes. That is yes, there is a difference between being a citizen and being a consumer, and yes, it does matter.

    I also agree with what I believe to be Mel's concern. I believe that whatever roles we may play as users, consumers, clients, producers, etc. - and whatever role that the education system may play in fostering those roles through various disciplines - our role as citizens inhabits a more fundamental layer in our social interactions when we live in a civil society. Because of that, I believe that the educational system has a corresponding fundamental role in the development of citizens (in addition to other aspects of a student's personhood).
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    Feb 17 2011: it's an economic book - it has to do with the movement of goods and stuff. if it called us consumers thats totally ok. if it was a book about government it should call us citizens, if it was a book about biology it should call us humans, if it was a religious book it might call us the children of God.

    yes there is a difference. but what worries me is that people seem to inherently believe that the government is supposed to affect or even control the economy - why else would you make the correlation to citizen when reading an economic booklet?
  • Feb 25 2011: Sir,you have to expect that an economics tract of the sort you described is going to utilize a specific nomenclature that may or may not practice a mild form of reductionism in order to adequately express theories and practices in a highly complex and dynamic field of study, without necessarily meaning to demote the totality of human life. Anthropology refers to humans as "apes" not because Anthropologists are intent on downgrading humans to the unenviable status of animals swinging from tree to tree,but because in their field of study homo sapiens are "apes". The term "citizen" itself fulfills the same descriptive purpose. A citizen is a person who inhabits a political framework. This term also reduces a person to a clear sub-category of his full humaness.
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    Feb 18 2011: Its more than semantics, in my view. Citizenship is about being possessed of authentic and actionable information by which one can make the informed decisions to make America better and fit America into an interdependent world. Being a consumer is to participate and/or persist in a process of economic consumption. One way of seeing and being inthe world gives primacy to the act of consumption, another locates that act within all kinds of other considerations, in fact reduces it to one of a spectrum of things one might do in the course of making the nation and the world.

    Is that a distinction that makes a difference?
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      Feb 18 2011: Riiiiight.... and by that logic, if you're a "user", it means all you do is "use" stuff (all stuff) for your selfish interests, without caring about how it was created and you never create anything. Still following this logic, what do you call the "users" of development and design programs?

      Do you see the contradition in the last statement? The point I'm trying to make is similar to the one Jordan Miller makes, though I'm giving you a more closer analogy to the "consumer" bit (while Jordan gives good analogies to "citizen").

      The point is it's all relative. Relative to the context and perspective.

      Why should I, as a developer, care for "citizens" in general (them being able to make America better and everything else you said), where all that matters in my context is the people who'd use my program (regardless of what the term for them was)?

      In similar context, why should your son, as an economist, care for the qualities that define a "citizen" where all that matters in that context is their effect on the economy, which is split into people that consume - consumers, people that trade with people that consume - merchants, and people that provide the goods and services - producers, and perhaps a few other kinds of "citizens" I'm missing.

      In biology, why should you care if someone is a citizen or not, where all that matters in that context is their physical/biological characteristics that define all citizens and non-citizens as "humans"?

      In politics, why should American politicians consider all humans where all that really matters in their context is the will of the legal residents of their country, i.e. all of their citizens?
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        Feb 25 2011: i disagree wholeheartedly. What you are talking about is rhetoric. We cant compartmentalize society like that. We are integrated beings in an integrated world, complex. To separate these roles demonstrates a lack of empathy and a lack of concern for your neighbors , your community, and your humanity. its cold. And it is the problem with the world. As a manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction (or production), if I work at Lockheed Martin, why should i care if I'm murdering humans in the masses for private gain--its my job--to me, they are not consumers or citizens or humans--they are fodder, they are enemy, they are terrorists.

        Life, the economy, science, needs to be more holistic--we have common origins and needs and strong together, nothing, if apart.

        Social networking is a kind of demonstration for holistic development and the power it manifests.
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          Feb 25 2011: This may come as a surprise, but I actually agree with you. Our points aren't in conflict really.

          From now on, I shall have more empathy for every member of an organized society, regardless of my exchange with them. And as proof, I shall do below what every book should do (or at least what the topic appears to be about) - refer to every such member as a citizen, with all implications of that - while reaffirming your point:

          Citizens who make weapons of mass destruction need to realize what they're doing is likely to kill innocent citizens and non-citizens and just maybe along with non-innocent citizens and non-innocent non-citizens. We all know citizens who lead societies will just abuse those to threaten killing innocent citizens and innocent non-citizens lead by another citizen who leads another society.

          Citizens who among other things study economy need to know citizens and even non-citizens can do all sorts of stuff within society. The economic effects they're aware of - citizens who among other things study economy or citizens who make all kinds of stuff (including weapons of mass destruction/production) or citizens who among other things buy all sorts of things (including weapons of mass destruction/production) - is just part of the full picture.

          Citizens who among other things make programs for any citizen and non-citizen to use need to know every citizen and non-citizen can be much more valuable to society than simply being a citizen or non-citizen that uses their program, like for example being a citizen who also among other things makes programs for any citizen and non-citizen to use.

          Citizens who among other things study biology need to acknowledge the effect of citizens and non-citizens alike to society when studying citizens and non-citizens' organisms.

          I wish good luck to anyone trying to make citizens who among other things write books see this and have more empathy for all citizens and non-citizens alike.
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    Mar 3 2011: Interesting question- I think it comes down to the idea that countries are people not land masses. When we see countries that way people are citizens. When we see them only as marketing segments theay are consumers. Your question is important because when we measure a country by GDP they are consumers and producers only. When we measure a country's standard of living with other metrics like health, happiness and longevity they are citizens.
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    Feb 25 2011: What is an economy if not to lift up its people and improve their conditions? i may misunderstand it, but Jordan Miller, your comment alarms me. The economy should be regulated so far as to empower and protect its citizens. we buy sell and trade goods to foster our community needs, our neighbors, our fellow man, woman, child, the citizens.

    I am not a consumer. i am a citizen. Citizens should make informed choices. To view somebody as a consumer is to dehumanize them, turn them into a barcode, a product that is measured by its financial value. To measure human beings by financial worth is monstrous, unfeeling, callous,cruel, anti-human. my worth is more than my buying power. If you see somebody as a consumer than they are nothing but something to be exploited. When its of no value to you anymore, you diminish it, or destroy it. If you are a consumer, you have no human rights, no social rights, and you are not a society-as Margaret Thatcher said--'there is no society' we enslave each other. there is no value for morals, ethics, or rights, or individualism in consumerism. There is no group, no community, no nation or society, only consumers and the consumed.

    We regulate consuming and trading and industry because we are social animals and we have a social contract. Those who violate it are criminals. Unfortunately, the criminals have all the power and see you as a consumer with no rights and no value except to buy, sell, labor, produce, and empower the oligarchs.
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    Feb 20 2011: @ Jordan; You answer the first part of Mel's question with precision. Very nice.
    @ Vasil; You are over-generalizing.

    The danger Mel is sensing deals with the decomposition of identity... not the meaning of the words we use. The point is, Mel, it DOES matter when we are categorically reduced to think/act within rigid quanta of "being". Without straying too far off topic... the important thing for your son (and all of us) to understand is that we are primarily individuals who engage (secondarily) as consumers of stuff, as citizens of a community, as species of a race. We cannot allow our selves to be defined/compartmentalized; rather, we must (if we hope to evolve) create our own identity. Otherwise we are mere utility- means to an end.
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    Feb 18 2011: It does matter because if you are just trying to consume, you don't think about its consequences on yourself and others. If you think about such matters, you become an active citizen.
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    Feb 17 2011: In programming books, the other side is called "users" while the reader's side is called "developers" or something of the sort. That doesn't mean developers are not also users and that users can't also be developers if they wanted to.

    Similarly, a "consumer" is just a term in economics equivalent to a "user", while "economist" is equivalent to "developer".

    Neither "user" or "consumer" is demeaning in any way... it's just a way to narrow down a particular kind of people that you have exchange with. There is such a thing as "my users" and "your users" from a developers' perspective, as well as "my consumers" and "your consumers" from economists' perspective. There's also "my citizens" and "your citizens" from the perspective of politicians. But there's no such thing as "my citizens" and "your citizens" from the perspective of economists and developers, as well as any other combination you can think of.

    It's all just semantics.
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    Feb 17 2011: In my opinion, a citizen coudn't be citizen without being a consumer , is like saying that I could be a normal man without having the heart.A consumer , I think, is a part from a citizen.