Spy Commerce

The Surveillance Society: Part Three

Such a high degree of segmentation depends on surveillance, and companies are enlisting the full range of technology to accomplish this crucial task. The corporate version of those electronic collars used in home detention is in development at The PreTesting Company of New Jersey. It's a watch that records messages encoded in the sound tracks of radio and TV commercials. The future Neilsen families who wear this timepiece will give marketers unheard-of accuracy about who tunes in to what. The same device will also detect signals from a chip inserted into the spines of magazines, conveying how long a reader spends perusing a publication.

Of course, the same information available to marketing execs can be purchased by insurers and employers, with predictable results. Lists of people who have filed workers' compensation claims are made available to businesses. Widespread migration of medical records results in denial of health and life insurance to recovered alcoholics, the mentally ill, and even battered women. This system doesn't discriminate. One reporter in L.A. obtained the names and addresses of 5500 children from a data-collection company, despite the fact that she posed as a well-known child murderer.

This is the most obvious downside of the free market in personal data. But the more common consequence of being classified by your data trail is that it extends the biases of class into everything from getting a mortgage to the catalogues you receive in the mail to the way the phone company responds to your complaint. Once established, your profile is hard to shake, and for those outside the optimal psychographic, life can be like trying to get a taxi in Harlem.

But even those at the top of the data heap pay a price for their privileges, since the triumph of marketing has profound social implications. "Our lives are ever more controlled by relationships with organizations rather than with people." says MIT sociologist and surveillance expert Gary T. Marx. "It is a society that is more abstract, where you see more alienation and fragmentation. Whatever is uniquely human gets diluted. You become a walking cultural caricature."

This winnowing of the self in the machinery of marketing is part and parcel of the surveillance society. Like the proliferation of spycams and the rise of reality TV, it reflects a culture in which privacy is sacrificed for security, invaded for pleasure, and exploited for profit.

The rationale for all this is an almost utopian attempt to eliminate uncertainty, but each of these strategies also shrinks the terrain of freedom. Security cameras may curtail the chaos of the streets, but they chill dissent; SPY-TV may be a safe way to live dangerously, but it stylizes control; dataveillance may be an answer to the disorder of the marketplace, but it conflates personality with product. Even as it curtails risk, the surveillance society diminishes choice, and that may be the greatest trade-off. For in the end, we are the sum of our choices.


This is the third of a three-part series.

Read part one: Spycam City.
Read part two: Spycam Chic.
Read part three: Spy Commerce.

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