The post-user and the digital drug market

The post-user and the digital drug market

The concept of ‘the user’ or ‘person who uses drugs’ is central to how we talk about drug supply and distribution. It implies a singular individual who has a continuous relationship with drugs and a defined trajectory through which they become drug experienced. The non human elements of drug use contexts have been integrated by Duff (2011), Dennis (2019) and others, who have sought to move away from the user as the centre of the universe. Research into digital drug distributions still often works with the background assumption that user=a single individual. To question that we can draw on research in human computer interaction.

Baumer and Brubaker’s concept of post-userism describes how the design of digital systems is evolving away from the ground truth assumption that the start and end point is the actions of a single human user. They sketch out the historical evolution of the basic assumptions in human computer interaction, from a single person sitting in front of a single fixed terminal, to the use of multiple mobile devices, IOT devices, and other digital things that take on some of what would previously be attributes of the user. Attributes such as distributed cognition are to the for here. That parallels a lot of new materialism and actor-network theory work. I would go further and say that the classic period of the ‘user’ also had some of these attributes baked in, but they were hidden due to who the users were. There was a near one to one relationship between the user’s cultural habitus and the design of the systems they were using.

They set out some attributes we should be alert to. There is indirection, where the system operator is acting for someone else. There are many instances where a device might be shared among a group, or where it is mediated by an operator. Then there is transience, where individuals interact with a system repeatedly without it retaining a singular ‘trace identity’ for them. Multiplicity is a common happening in some systems where people can have varied identities representing different uses or subject positions. Systems also work with user Absence where they are not centred on any one user, but have effects nonetheless. They give an example of Google searches for classically African American names, as a prospective employer might do, throw up adverts implying the person may have a criminal record. User absence or withdrawal does not guarantee they can avoid the effects systems have. Human and non-human also work together as hybrids, for example the automod we are working with operates as an ally for the human moderators. All sorts of interesting challenges come up here, such as how the trend towards biometric authentication works when the person using the interface is not the end user.

In drug market studies this perspective is apt, as we see systems which have these attributes. There are automated drug market systems such as Televend. Users operate drug purchase systems for others and insert themselves into the market as buyers, secondary distributors and social suppliers. In drug market studies we can systematically acknowledge how these changes have altered the nature of distribution and consumption. For example, the rise of performance/image enhancing drugs decenters the hedonic self, instead involving multiple selves. Legal liability and culpability are also in question when the systems are complex and distribute responsibility among different individuals and systems.

Baumer EPS and Brubaker JR (2017) Post-userism. In: Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Denver Colorado USA, 2 May 2017, pp. 6291–6303. ACM. DOI: 10.1145/3025453.3025740.

Dennis F (2019) Injecting Bodies in More-than-Human Worlds. London: Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9780429466137.
Duff C (2011) Reassembling (social) contexts: New directions for a sociology of drugs. International Journal of Drug Policy 22(6): 404–406. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2011.09.005.
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