VRM as Agency

Most of us understand agency to mean a kind of company: one that represents other companies, or individuals. Insurance, real estate and advertising agencies come to mind.

In fact agency has a deeper and more important meaning. Namely, the capacity of individuals to act independently, to make choices, and to impose their will in the world. By this meaning, agency is a big deal in sociology, psychology, philosophy, law and many other fields. But it’s missing is business. That’s because we’re accustomed to understanding business as a structural thing:  an instrument of control.

Wikipedia frames this problem well in the opening paragraph of its Structure vs. Agency Debate article:

The debate concerning the primacy of either structure or agency on human behaviour is a central ontological issue in sociology, political science, and the other social sciences. In this context, “agency” refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.[1]Structure“, by contrast, refers to the recurrent patterned arrangements which seem to influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess.[2] The structure versus agency debate may therefore be understood simply as the issue of socialisation against autonomy.

Limiting individual choices through “patterned arrangements” has been an ideal of big business for a very long time. Choice is an ideal too, provided your product or service provides a choice for customers to not choose competing products or services. Agency-type choice, in which individuals are free to assert their will and their means, doesn’t get much respect.

In fact, most big businesses aren’t interested in customers that have lots of agency — unless those customers aren’t captured yet. Instead big business has long idealized controlling customers. That’s why they talk about “capturing,” “acquiring,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” them. And spend billions on systems that help them do that.

These controlling ideals are still with us in the era of “social networking” and “social media.” (Or what one friend calls SEFTTI, for “social every fucking thing there is.”) Sure, Facebook is as social as a kegger (or more so), but it is also a “patterned arrangement that seems to influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess.”

Personal autonomy on Facebook only goes as far as Facebook lets it go. Same with every other “social” system run by an entity other than yourself. They put a lid on your agency. You are not free.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with social systems, or structures, or even with businesses that want to control your choices. I am saying that agency has been AWOL from the market’s table. And bringing it there is what we’re doing with VRM.

I realized that VRM is about agency when I was talking with Iain Henderson the other day. Iain and his company MyDex have been working on creating and deploying personal data stores, or PDSes. These are the means by which individuals manage and  share personal data selectively. In that conversation Iain casually mentioned that the U.K. government was clearly invested in “user agency.” That is, in citizen responsibility for data about themselves and generated by themselves. In this fundamental way, he said, the U.K. government is far ahead of our own here in the U.S. — and the U.K. is therefore a more ideal environment for testing out VRM tools, such as the personal data store. (In fact MyDex’s prototype trials are going on right now, in three U.K. towns.)

What we’ll have, as VRM tools roll out and come into use, is many ways to test concepts such as methodological individualism and action theory. Mostly, however, I think it’s a way to see how much larger, and better, we can make the economy once individual customers are free to express their intentions.

Bonus link — which I put here hoping that somebody can fix it. Since it’s about me and some stuff I’ve said, I’m not the one to do that.


  1. Mikeriddell6

    I’m a big fan of MyDex as Iain H is already aware, and fully support their pilot projects here in the UK.

    What I am still struggling with however, is how the individual will make practical use of his or her own data. To the man in the street, what’s in it for him to make him want to sign up? The sell so far, still falls a bit short. (sorry Iain!).

    On the other hand, if an agency (i think you refer to them as fourth parties) were to gather, organise, protect, then leverage the community’s volunteered personal information by holding ‘bad’ businesses to ransom, this might pay for the rewards of participating in the community as well as attracting new members to join. The more that join the more it can ransom by operating as a huge buying cooperative.

    Volunteered personal information is without doubt – in my opinion – the way forward, but leveraging it’s true value is an opportunity not to be missed especially as everyone is fed up with institutions that look after themselves at the expense of community.


  2. Ric

    @mikeriddell62 – while I agree that explaining to the person in the street why it’s a good idea that they control their own data is still an outstanding task, I still see that as preferable to ceding control of it to any other party. At what point does your fourth party become the problem rather than the solution (a situation that I would see as almost inevitable)?
    I think part of the MyDex idea is using it for accessing government services, which most of us will do at some time or another (drivers licence, passport, etc) – if we have the data then it is always up to date and accurate (I won’t explore fraud here, other than to say it is just as easy in the physical world to enter forms with misleading data), and we are in control of how much data is handed over.
    There are, I think, number of unresolved issues around identity still – one of the key reasons (excuses?) given for capturing more data than is required to provide a service is that it is needed to identify the recipient unambiguously. Once THAT is resolved, then what is required to receive a service (or buy a product, rent a DVD, apply for a bank loan) drops away drastically. This does two things – reduces the volume of data we need to keep in a PDS, and reduces the complexity of dealing with it.

  3. William at Mydex

    Doc – you get support in your use of “agency” from a surprising and powerful quarter: the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Rowan Williams writes powerfully about UK public services but pushes back against the trend of using “customer” or other passive words for situations such as education or health where the individual should have an active role. So he argues for using the word “agent” in that context. I forget which book. Anyway, deep thinkers think alike.

    It’s the implied passivity of the individual that we need to resist.

    Our hunch at Mydex is that, given the tools, people will be more active in dealing with their personal data.

  4. Doc Searls

    Mike, it helps to remember that it’s still early. There were times when we wondered what a person would do with their own horseless carriage, or their own computer, or with a phone that runs applications.

    What we need for VRM (or GRM — Government Relationship Management) are inventions that mother necessity — and we don’t have those yet. Personal data stores (PDSes, such as MyDex’s) are a necessary and insufficient step toward those inventions. It’s like we’re shaking down internal combustion before we create a car.

    At least in the UK we have a government that recognizes that the party in the best position to know,his or her new address(es) is the citizen. And, as Ric says, once we work out the kinks in the relationships between ourselves and our public servants, it will be easier to work out the rest of it.

  5. Doc Searls

    William, thanks for that lead. I need to run that one down for the book I’m writing. Anything anybody has on the subject of agency is invited to send it along. Thanks in advance.

  6. Mikeriddell6

    Ric your question “at what point does your fourth party become the problem rather than the solution” is very valid indeed.

    It’s something that’s been on my mind ever since the mad idea of creating a (ethical) Tesco Clubcard for a town. Our thinking is that the PDSes (such as MyDex) are aggregated in a local Trust the size of a community where they are protected by local Trustees under very strict rules on what the data can be used for and by whom etc.

    I would welcome input from anyone who has views on what this Trust should look like, as well as views on what a connected bunch of Trusts using the same platform should be doing with itself. This is a superstructure that could wield some power and needs carefully shaping.

    Ric I think we all have the same concerns, as well as the same ambitions – for the sake of clarity mine are about about narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

    i think this debate is simply about discovering the most sustainable way of doing that. So please feel free to contact me via Twitter – and anyone else for that matter – since the time for the debate is right here and right now.

    And Doc, thanks for your comments too. Government is searching for effective ways to change the behaviour of individuals, as well as seeking to do more for less. The two are connected but independent of each other. With the right incentives system at the front end of a MyDex back end, I believe both objectives can be rolled into one.

    I’d be very keen to explore how this would be possible with anyone willing to help, but we’re in a hurry now that we’ve launched our prototype in Wigan.

    Please do feel free to contact me. And thanks, as ever, for everything Doc – you are an inspiration!

    Best, @mikeriddell62

  7. @tj_carroll

    To Ric’s point of “at what point does your fourth party become the problem rather than the solution” and @mikeriddell62 solution of a public trust, I would offer a market-driven solution, that gets back to the original idea: agency or individual choice.

    We must work together to make sure that the world of fourth-party PDS’s use a common set of protocols and legal frameworks, such that they become transparently swappable. Now these fourth-parties can grow as pure commercial entities to aggregate large numbers of individuals’ data and leverage that against companies that would consume the data, for profit. Or they can grow as smaller public trusts as @mikeriddell62. Or they can grow as a quasi-public limited profit entity such as Mydex.

    All these thing can work, but which ones will work? If they are transparently swappable, then the individuals will choose whichever gives them the best deal. Different people will choose differently, as we all have different needs and priority. And if these fourth-parties are transparently swappable, people *will* swap, just as consumers can now swap their money to a different bank or stock broker.

  8. Doc Searls

    tj, Exactly. Our own data needs to be self-hostable, and services built on it need to be substitutable. It’s that simple. I don’t see how we can do that without open standards and open source at the base layer.

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