Sunday, January 29, 2012

Don't Call Me a Resource, User

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end."
--Immanuel Kant
A user
Recently I was working closely with the users of a reporting tool I was developing, and I struggled with the term I used to describe them. It would creep into our conversations once in a while. As a developer, I wanted to call them 'users', but this seemed like a very impersonal way of speaking. They certainly didn't think of themselves as users. A 'user' [syn: buyer, customer, end user, enjoyer, purchaser, shopper] is someone who consumes products provided to them--they don't contribute anything to the product. But this should not be the way people who will use software should interact with developers. There should be many opportunities for them to direct the creation and ongoing development of the tools they use.

Thinking about this made me recall a conversation I once had with another developer, in which he objected to being called a 'resource' by project managers. "I'm not some automaton who can produce X lines of code every Y hours," he said. Managers must have some way of keeping track of who is doing what and how long it's taking, but the term 'resource' lumps together programmers, crude oil, and encyclopedias.

I don't really have any better suggestions for these terms than the ones that already exist. They are tools that serve important purposes. I was unable to refrain from using the term 'user' in the beginning of this post. Many euphemisms invented to put a positive spin on things are awkward or silly (e.g. 'sanitation engineer' or 'right-sizing'). Furthermore, if becoming more specific about who people are involves demographic terminology--e.g., how single, over-45, white females use a product--I doubt this is much of an improvement. Finally, 'using' something isn't always a bad thing. It can connote invention and creativity, like when you use a tool to do something it wasn't designed to do. But it's worth reflecting on the words we use when we talk about people.

A resource
Perhaps what's more important than the words themselves are the ways we use them. Immanuel Kant's first formulation of his Categorical Imperative is: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." But he also stated it in the terms of the quote at the top of this post: Don't use people as means towards ends. When we use impersonal terms, I wonder if we are any more likely to do so.  I suspect that following the Categorical Imperative involves developing relationships and practices so that, when you say 'user' or 'resource', you don't treat people like mere users and resources. How do you use 'user'?


  1. Resource seems to be pretty standard, unfortunately. It's how Personnel got changed to Human Resources, which we can thankfully abbreviate as the less insulting HR.

    I think the reason management tends to do that is to put a level of abstraction between them and the people whose lives may be affected by their decisions. I've heard employees as FTEs before, which seems like a waste of time, since it's no shorter to say and slightly confusing to boot.

    I sometimes use the term "end user" and customer or client works well. Though your clients often have customers and clients of their own, which can get confusing. Wheels within wheels...

  2. Sounds like you're saying 'personnel' was too personal! Do you think following the categorical imperative is incompatible with management, if managers have to be able to make tough decisions?

  3. I think it more likely that it was a seemingly good idea that got latched onto by enough business that it became the norm. It basically touched on a pet peeve of mine.

    Ultimately though, I think companies would be better served viewing individuals rather than resources. In the tech industry especially, people come and go constantly. I think there are advantages to both sides for people to stay with a company for a long time. So the if the euphemistic jargon makes it easier to maintain this status quo, it's probably doing more harm than good.

  4. Kant was the king of euphemistic jargon!! Almost all of his language is in a sense intended to depersonalize language so that we become "rational agents" obeying "moral law" rather than people trying to get along. I think you can see this sort of language as actually on the side of the "categorical imperative" (euphemism, cough cough.) It allows us to respect each other as professionals, avoid personal conflict based on idiosyncratic intuitions, and get to work!

    Maybe we in academia should use more of these sorts of euphemisms when dealing with our colleagues--it would perhaps give us a chance at a more harmonious, drama-free, "perpetual peace" in the workplace.

    (I realize that your point is that we should reflect critically on the attitudes that language places us in. It's a point that's well-taken. But I guess I want to say that this language might have been crafted very intelligently and humanely to avoid personal conflict--just as "PC" language around race and gender seems abstract and off-putting but also protects folks from the habitual racism and sexism embedded in old habits of language.)

  5. Yes, when firing someone, it's important to have distance--for all parties involved. But when one is supposed to have an ongoing and productive relationship, I'm not sure getting more and more abstract is the way to go. I always get confused when companies talk about 'business' and 'IT', for instance. I just know that I can get things done with Ani and Bartek, but Carl is sometimes a problem.

    1. Zach, I see your point. The philosopher in me was coming out--I guess I was just surprised to see you use Kant, the king of abstraction and jargon among philosophers, to make this point about how jargon moves us away personal relations. This is a Jamesian or maybe Wittgenstenian point, not a Kantian point!

      (Ah, internecine philosophical battles!)


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