Why a Digital Consumer Hub?

The debate about digital technology and its impact is between optimists and pessimists. Optimists believe that technology’s innovations, which include new types of economic organisation, will solve many problems, from eradicating poverty to curing disease. Pessimists believe that ‘innovation’ has come to mean disrupting our societies and eroding traditional economic models. What better way to test our hopes and fears about digital technology than to see the world through the eyes of its consumers? Unfortunately much discussion about the impact of digital technology either ignores them or assumes that their role in the digital economy is passive.

Consumers are, of course, to be found among the optimists and pessimists. To ask someone for an opinion about how digital technology could change their life is to encourage an expression of hope or anxiety—or more often a mixture of the two. But to evaluate public policies, much of which aim to protect consumers, we need to learn more about how digital services are changing their lives now. How do they feel about dealing with digitally-enabled services? How has digital technology affected their interaction with loved ones and friends? Has it given them more job satisfaction? Has it taken away their job?

We have established the Digital Consumer Hub to answer these and other questions. Our aim is to better understand European consumers of technology products and services, and to support consumer groups and policymakers as they seek to design public policies to promote the consumers’ interests.

Individuals matter

Humanity is increasingly meshed with digital systems of every kind. The websites and apps that we use have flattened a once himalayan terrain of old economy giants and old world assumptions. This has not only changed the meaning of what it is to be an organisation it has changed what it means to be an individual. In particular it has made it easier, perhaps necessary, for people to blend multiple roles. An individual can be simultaneously a worker, a student, a job seeker, an entrepreneur, and retired. Similarly, consumers in the digital era are often active users who contribute in different ways to shaping services and products. The assumption that a person has only one role is a prejudice from an earlier era. Furthermore it casts people as passive consumers of whatever organisations and governments choose to give them. But society is increasingly defined by the roles that individuals choose to play, and the groups they choose to form, including what James Meek has described as ‘flashmob commonwealths of mutual interest’. (James Meek, ‘Short Cuts: Fan-Owned Politics’ London Review of Books, June 1, 2017)

The Digital Consumer Hub wishes to answer the questions What do consumers and citizens think? What is their experience given their multiple roles? How will they shape the future of the digital economy? We will examine research from the perspective of different disciplines and analyse public policy to speculate on where the interests of consumers and citizens really lie. We will invite informed individuals as well as representatives from consumer organisations, governments, industry, to respond to our thinking, to each other, and to introduce new topics.

Upcoming posts will spotlight policy announcements, private sector initiatives and the work of governments and supranational institutions. Over the next few weeks we will take a look at the following studies / surveys to see if we can find some first answers to the above questions. But the Consumer Hub does not stop here, and this is only the beginning of a new policy network.