catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 3 :: 2014.02.07 — 2014.02.20


Being known

Be like the fox
Who makes more tracks than necessary,
Some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Each January, as part of a class we teach to college students, my husband Rob and I re-watch a PBS Frontline film called The Persuaders.  Though it’s ten years old, it remains one of the most insightful films I’ve seen about the persuasion industry, delving into the ways in which designers of everything from cars to ads to political campaigns seek to manipulate us at the level of our deepest desires (you can watch the entire film online if you’re interested).  If our students aren’t yet convinced by that point in the class that consumerism functions as a religion, The Persuaders does an excellent job of persuading them.  As adman Douglas Atkin concludes from a study of cults, “People, whether they’re joining a cult or joining a brand, do so for exactly the same reasons. They need to belong, and they want to make meaning. We need to figure out what the world is all about, and we need the company of others. It’s simply that.”

One of the sequences that tends to unsettle our students significantly involves a company called the Acxiom Corporation that specializes in gathering boatloads of data about people in order to spit out targeted lists of potential customers for their clients.  Correspondent Douglas Rushkoff explains,  

Somewhere in these acres of blinking computers is carefully guarded data about you, not just your name, address and phone number, but probably also the catalogs you get, the cars you’ve bought, and maybe even what shoes you wear and whether you like dogs or cats. Acxiom’s information is culled from census data and tax records, those product surveys you answered and customer records supplied by corporations and credit card companies that are Acxiom clients. Acxiom sifts all this data to produce lists of target consumers for their clients.

On its corporate web site, Acxiom refers to its service as an “audience operating system” and claims that, “for more than 40 years, Acxiom has been a leader in harnessing the powerful potential of data to strengthen connections between people, businesses and their partners.”  Strengthening connections — it’s almost like…“community.”  Then why does it feel so wrong?

Rushkoff isn’t really telling us anything we don’t already know.  We’ve noticed how the checkout machine at the grocery store prints out a coupon for something we bought a few months back, or the way the ads on a web page feature a product we looked up on a whim on Amazon last week, and we know that these things are generated by collections of data about us.  It’s disconcerting, and yet we continue to post photos on Facebook, swipe the credit card and fill out online customer surveys for the chance to win a fabulous shopping spree.  We even continue to give all of our friends’ and family members’ e-mail addresses to companies like Evite, whose atrocious “privacy policy” might better be called an invasion of privacy policy.  In case you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, it boils down to, “You gave us your personal information and that of everyone you know, so we can do whatever we want with it, and no, we’ll never erase it from our records — it’s your own damn fault.”  In a white paper called “This is Big Data, Big Deal,” Acxiom basically comes to the same conclusion:

The fact is the explosion of data has been caused by the aforementioned changes in consumer behaviour and consumption; the way we shop, work and relax. The growth in numbers and kinds of channels, devices such as Smartphones and all the real-time data they provide through Apps and social networking, products and services has led to Big Data. Consumers have created it, the same people who buy goods and services from the world’s brands. Marketers absolutely must care — this is their space.

The messages in this kind of literature are consistently inconsistent about whether all of this effort is ultimately in the service of the seller or the buyer or both at the same time in a spectacular, consensual consumer-gasm.  If you listen to the vision for the future as dreamed by companies like eBay and Square, you’ll hear endless variations on the theme of simply improving the ability to give us all what we want, when we want it, which requires gathering increasingly personalized data in order to not just fulfill, but anticipate our desires. In a recent article for the New York Times Magazine called “EBay’s Strategy for Taking on Amazon,” Jeff Himmelman chronicles the evolution of the digital wallet, which gives retailers the opportunity to know when you enter the store and what you might be looking for based on past purchases.  Himmelman writes,

Imagine that, when you walk into a store, you could look at your mobile device and see everything currently available in your size there. Instead of having to stuff the ‘‘buy nine sandwiches, get the 10th sandwich free’’ cards from various merchants into your wallet, suppose every 10th sandwich showed up free without your having to do anything at all. Ditto your frequent-flier information and every other affinity or rewards program.

‘‘It’s not about payment,’’ Jack Dorsey, a founder of Square, a PayPal competitor, says. ‘‘It’s about identity. And it’s about the experience that a merchant can create, which is what actually builds loyalty. We believe that it’s important that the technology, the mechanics of payments, actually fade away to the background. They disappear completely.”

It isn’t until the last quarter of the article that Himmelman pulls back a corner of the curtain, inviting us to consider whether we really believe in the consumerist techno-spectacle that those like Dorsey and eBay CEO John Donahoe are trying to sell.  “Entering a store that happens to be geofenced and receiving notifications on your phone based on who you are and where you’re standing — does anybody truly want that?,” asks Himmelman.  It begs a larger question: what kind of world do we want to live in?  And if we truly believe that Big Data doesn’t just make us squeamish, but diminishes our humanity in some way, what are we willing to do to resist its power over us? 

What most good marketers understand about human beings is that our desires drive our actions, whether we can articulate those desires or not, and our desires are a reflection of the world we deeply long to live in.  If they can tell us a compelling story that we long to be part of, chances are we’ll be right at the edge of our seats, ready to leap up when they issue the altar call: “Buy it now!”  And the more they know about us, the more that call can be customized to grab our hearts (via our wallets, digital or otherwise).  “When they want you to buy something / they will call you,” writes Berry. “When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know.”

So what’s a poor, little human to do in the imposing shadow of such a charismatic preacher and his double-edged gospel of inevitability?  I try to take Berry’s advice, which amounts to cultivating a kind of whimsical wisdom that disrupts the prescriptive logic of the operating system:  

…Every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it….
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Whenever we hear the message that a relationship based on the idolatry of consumption is good for all of us, we should always beg to differ, both in theory and in practice — which is certainly more fun if we’ve got a cloud of witnesses begging to differ with us.  And the more eccentric and resourceful and diverse that cloud of witnesses is, the more creative ideas we can come up with to resist the lie.  From sharing to bartering, from protesting to being content, from paying in cash to handwriting party invitations — the options for joyful subversion are many when we turn our feet together toward the Kingdom, which, if the promises are true, is not just an endlessly sedate sermon for the sufficiently disembodied self-righteous.  Who in the hell wants to sit uncomfortably in that pew forever and ever, amen?  Rather, it’s a resurrection party in which we dance all day and late into the night because not only have the fried Acxiom servers been repurposed as planters in the community garden, but in a magnificent twist no algorithm could ever have predicted, the dead are alive again and we are fully known by One who has no need to steal our desires and sell them back to us. 

Listen closely: you can already hear the music playing, and beneath the layers of ad imprints and Sunday circulars and coupon codes is a beating heart, keeping time.

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