Editor's Choice

Meters, Purple People Eaters and The Revolution Betrayed

Rob Horning

On Taste tracking software; is it an anonymous angel? or something rather sinister?

In the last Marginal Utility column (see 'In Search of Real Amateurs'), I defended the volunteer customer reviews on Web sites like Amazon.com as being a useful way to get unprofessionalized opinions about culture; a way to tap into precious genuine enthusiasm in a commercialized society predicated on a ceaseless flow of hype. But the sister phenomenon to the reviews, those personalized recommendations that Amazon and Netflix generate specifically for you by tracking everything you view on the site and correlating it with bundles of similar things other people looked at, strike me as extremely sinister. And they are never creepier than when, as often is the case, they are accurate -- that is, when they produce for me a list of things I am actually interested in.

For example, it's extremely disconcerting for me to find recommended Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried, A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes and The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky when I open Amazon on my home computer. (At work, I'm someone slightly different -- there my recommendations are Liberty Before Liberalism by Quentin Skinner and Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeter.) These are interesting books all, books I would definitely want to read. But it's uncomfortable to have to wonder how trailblazing and revolutionary my path through cultural history really is, considering that my computer is already a few steps ahead of me.

But really, should I even be bothered by this? Shouldn't I be thankful that Amazon has expedited my shopping experience and turned me on to some things I'll appreciate? Shouldn't I be glad that it has stepped in to provide the word of mouth I no longer really get from friends, because with ever-enlarging work commitments and mid-30s dyadic withdrawal, I don't really get to spend all that much time with friends, and my friends themselves haven't any more time than I do to expand their cultural horizons all that much? Shouldn't I be excited that this massive network of unsuspecting but well-informed accomplices has been harnessed on my behalf to extend my intellectual reach? And that these anonymous angels in tune with my personal zeitgeist can let me know about bands I would almost certainly like since I bought albums by Deerhoof and Erase Errata? And Netflix might suggest that if I enjoyed watching Nashville I might also like Lone Star?

Well, no. Whether or not what's recommended is good, or will appeal to me ultimately doesn't really matter, since the quality of cultural goods in and of themselves are generally less important to a person than the social connections they embody; the actual communication among friends that makes them meaningful. Sure, there's possibly some objective standpoint from which one can argue that some works of art are better than others regardless of the social network in which they are embedded. (I'd hate to contribute to the "dictatorship of relativism" the new pope is all steamed up about.) But what really makes these works significant to a specific individual is the feeling of allegiance and communal participation they permit. If that community consists solely of a mammoth associational database, it demystifies the whole process, the whole myth of community through consumption. This database exposes the old-fashioned notion of "word of mouth" to be not a social process but a sheer mathematical one, a probability game. Perhaps the destruction of that myth is worth celebrating; maybe those are phony communities to begin with -- but it's not like other forms of community are springing up to take their place.

What these personalized recommendations actually accomplish is depersonalization. They encourage you down the same cattle chute that any other person who has stumbled on to the same general interests may have been rushed down. This upsets any kind of organic flow to the discoveries one can make, obviating whatever sense of selfhood one's discovery of interesting things might previously have offered. Internet tools that plug you into the mass consolidation and aggregation of data devastatingly reveal just how homogenized you always already are, just how frail the illusion that you have conceived of something unique really is. Again, it may be ultimately beneficial to have the myth of individual uniqueness shattered, but in the transitional phase, when models of self-esteem through extreme individuation still rule, this experience is painful.

With the thrill of discovery automated and the social aspects of consumption mechanized, all that's left is speed of consumption, volume, amassing a miser-like collection of "cool stuff" for it's own sake. What makes it "cool" eventually becomes simply a matter of its novelty, as the sensual qualities of things so quickly get used up in the climate of imperative convenience. And this is the quintessential recipe for the hedonic treadmill: the more you acquire, the more you need.

Still reeling from the revelation in the 6 March New York Times Magazine (2005) that Beck is a scientologist (and presumably has his "reactive mind" measured with an "e-meter" while aspiring to become an "Operating Thetan"), I read in the subsequent week's Magazine that thousands of people in Houston have agreed to attach to themselves a "portable people meter" (not to be confused with a purple people eater) to track their exposure to various forms of media throughout the course of their daily lives. How is this possible? All forms of public media will have a code inaudible to humans that the meter detect and records, a code the entertainment industry agreed to embed in all of their products once it was determined that the frequency wouldn't drive dogs crazy.

This creepy form of total information awareness is being introduced courtesy of Arbitron and Nielsen, the companies that tally media ratings, at the behest of advertisers, who are demanding better information about who sees what and what this makes them do. The Amazon-style system of personalized recommendations tries to sell this kind of surveillance and data collection as being for the customer's sake. But these complete monitoring systems are primarily intended to extend the culture industry's reach, identifying those few moments of the day where one is unexposed to commercial messages, ferreting out those few nooks and crannies that have evaded the media's reach and obliterating them with ever more precisely targeted ads. Soon, thanks to these groundbreaking volunteers in Houston, we will be allowed no time unmolested; every single waking moment will be mediated. And then advertisers will go to work on insinuating ads into our dreams. For our own benefit, of course. Because the customer is always king.

How intrusive must advertising become before the ludicrous notion that it's a beneficent industry that wants only to help people get what they want is finally and totally exploded? Will there have to be brand logos tattooed on an infant's eyelids before we finally acknowledge that advertising is a purely invasive force, one that attempts to shift the ideological atmosphere within which people think before they even realize their intellectual atmosphere has been poisoned? The measurement tools Nielson and Arbitron are hatching are not out to afford media a chance to be more responsive to pre-existing consumer desires but to detect more vulnerable moments in which desires can be implanted, to reshape what previously existed as that person's "authentic wants," if such things even exist. The measurements are out to reproduce the individual as digital code, as data, so as to make him more easily manipulated. And society at large conspires to reproduce that experience of being manipulated as pleasurable, as the very basis of pleasure (e.g., our responsiveness to sentimental films, our ability to be "moved"). We become the code and as we are decoded in the form of personally tailored ads -- we will see our mirror image in the ads aimed at us, a reflection of ourselves at our worst, with all our vulnerabilities and weaknesses highlighted, all our vanities inflamed, all our basest desires stoked.

As measurement systems become more pervasive, it becomes more the case that we only exist as citizens when we are being measured; when we are watching television, when we are shopping, when we are rating rentals on Netflix, when we are creating data. To the extent that we withdraw from these measurable systems, we don't matter. We don't exist. And people prefer to exist and be a part of society, even if that society seems flawed, as the alternative is to become "antisocial", and to subject one's self to the intense negative scrutiny (to be thought of as a Unibomber or a utopian daydreamer or a hippie freak, et cetera).

Thus people prefer invasive marketing, as it appears to integrate them into the hegemonic culture of shopping much more efficiently. People know they are supposed to be buying things to be happy, to fit in. But people quickly run out of things to buy. They need direction. Hence, the more invasive measuring and tracking devices that allow Amazon.com to make personalized recommendations will allow your TV to eventually display ads tailored especially for you -- doesn't that make you feel important? Personalized pitches remedy the problem of needing to shop when you want nothing in particular.

By ratcheting up the intensity on individuation and the importance of regarding oneself as unique, fewer people will have any shared cultural experiences to draw on at all. This prevents communities with any local context from forming. You might share a tightly bound bundle of interests with a few hundred people, but you'll be dispersed throughout the globe, and connected only via a niche cable channel. The idea that one should try to foster a shared identity with the people who are one's actual neighbors will become more and more alien. Geography will be overcome, and one's isolation and insecurity and vulnerability to ad culture will be perfected. We will have to rely on the media to let us know what others think about us, because the actual social fabric will have been so disrupted, there will be no other means of accessing the data. As we become more and more individuated, more and more catered to in all of our idiosyncrasy, the cultural choices we make, our tastes, matter less and less even as they seem to become all important, hieroglyphic symbols sent out to all the other individuated people out there in an effort to share something.

What might such ad-connected people look like? On the front page of the Marketplace section of the 25 April Wall Street Journal (2005), there are some fairly frightening photos of heavily made up Asian teenagers dolled up like futuro Geishas, wearing fur-trimmed lotus-collar robes, smiling and fawning in a submissive and enveloping relationship with their cell phones. The gist of the accompanying story is that Asian consumers allow their portable phones to be all-purpose marketing gadgets that keep them in the warm bath of advertising blather for all of their waking hours. In other words, they have turned their phones into inverted portable people meters. Naturally American companies, the Wall Street Journal reports, want a piece of the action, hoping to make cell-phone users even more zombie-like and inconsiderate in their clueless self-absorption.

"Among the Chinese," an Intel flack (oh, excuse me, Intel's "staff anthropologist") is quoted as saying, "cell phones have become such important status symbols that relatives at funeral rites burn paper cell phone effigies, so the dead will have their mobiles in the afterlife." Naturally, from the Wall Street Journal's standpoint, this is an altogether healthy development, because it seems to open the dead as a new marketing demographic. If only there were a way to measure how many ads the dead are seeing -- perhaps some ambitious market-research firm should hustle up some corpses and focus-group them.

The reason why these ads have taken off in Asia but not yet in America is that Americans have a stubborn habit of regarding cell phones as utilitarian tools rather than all-encompassing lifestyle managers; some Americans even have the audacity to turn them off except for cases of emergency. You can feel the frustration of the anthropologists and the marketing-strategy executives — is there any difference anymore? — wondering, How will people get their cultural marching orders then? Asians are not embarrassed to be "technosexual," an ad executive tells us, which helps them define themselves as "trend-setters" in their own personal "cyworlds."

In other words, the technosexuals have surrendered enough of their privacy to put them on the cutting edge of culturally-mediated identity, which leaves them feeling a more and more crushing emptiness inside when cut off from the pop ephemera that gives them a sense of who they are. This is why they can't imagine being without cell phones in the afterlife. The cores of their very souls are now defined by what media the cell phone can pipe into them to make them tangible. (A trend piece waiting to be hatched: Asian teens who commit suicide — seppuku style, perhaps — when they lose their cell phones. The loss of the cyworld repository of one's souls will prove too dismaying to overcome, and one feels there's no other choice but to complete the spiritual death that the cell-phone loss precipitates with physical death.)

It once was that the phrase "taking it into the streets" meant agitating for revolutionary change, conjuring visions of 1968 and students standing off against the National Guard over political issues of life and death. Now, thanks to cell phone technology, we're told that people will be "continuing to do branded activities in the street," according to another marketer. Talk about The Revolution Betrayed. We'll storm out into the streets doing our "branded activities" with our phones in the view of others, who we can't be bothered to acknowledge, in part because they are already far too involved with their own phones to make it worth our while anyway. Viva la revolution!

* * *
For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.

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