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Catherine Grandclément, Alain Nadaï, Smart grids and the techno-material construction of an electricity consumer

The paper focuses on construction of the « smart » electricity consumer in France. Our analysis is based on a seemingly minor episode of the large public and still on-going protest against the deployment of a smart metering infrastructure in France. That minor episode which concerns a small technical component of the French smart meter has however large-scale consequences for consumers and businesses. What is at stake in this controversy is how end-users are defined as electricity consumers and with what type of agency.

This story is reconstructed from a small set of interviews with high-profile managers in a series of key institutions of the smart meter programme. While our interviews were intended to be exploratory, we found ourselves propelled into a minutiae of technical details about the smart meter design and especially about the “radio module” of the French smart meter. Each of these technical details was in fact a move in a political and economic battle. What was at stake was the role of the consumer and its capacities to act in the renewed electrical world of the smart grid. Associated with this position of the consumer was also evidently the ability to act of businesses and other actors.

Our approach of the case study is very much informed by an Actor Network Theory-brand of social studies of markets. We consider consumers not as natural beings but as constructed figures. The task we set ourselves on is of examining “the making of the consumer” in a very literal sense, that of the material and technical devices through which something such as a “consumer behaviour” could be expressed. In so doing, we rely on the notion of “script” as put forward by Madeleine Akrich (Akrich, 1992) in order to analyse how one device of the smart meter is designed in order to script and “perform” a certain version of the consumer. At least three versions of the consumer struggle to be inscribed in the meter. Two of these versions, which fail to be inscribed into the meter, are versions of a consumer defined by individual action, preferences and optimizing choices. Only a third version is inscribed in the meter, which performs a consumer that has unwillingly relinquished his power to suppliers. It is the attached consumer, the largely captive consumer of elaborate market offers, bundled products and services, loyalty programs and other marketing devices ((Cochoy, Trompette).

In this story, the struggle to inscribe the consumer in the meter also is a struggle to define how the market should work. We follow the way in which different theories and practices of market construction become interwoven in and around the technical design of the French smart meter. Whereas the « smart grid » vision advocated in French/EU policy documents and grey literature celebrates the advent of a « smart » consumer, the process we analyse results in the decision to not directly deliver basic price information to the French electricity consumer.

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