E-meters and Purple People Eaters

Still reeling from the revelation in last week’s New York Times Magazine that Beck is a scientologist and presumably believes in operating Thetans and consents to have his “e-meter” readings charted, I read this week’s Magazine and discovered that thousands of people in Houston have agreed to attach a “portable people meter” (not to be confused with a purple people eater) to themselves to track their exposure to various forms of media throughout the course of their daily lives (which will all have an inaudible code embedded in them that the meter detects). This creepy form of total surveillance (for our own sake; to serve us consumers better, of course) 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. Potentially, these total information awareness systems of complete monitoring will help the culture industry extend its 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 we will be allowed no time unmolested; every single waking moment will be mediated. And then they will go to work on insinuating ads into our dreams. For our own benefit of course. Because the customer is always king.

Perhaps these systems will finally end the idea that advertising is some beneficient industry that only wants to help people get what they want and people will finally accept that ads are an invasive force that attempts to shift the ideological atmosphere people think in before they even realize their intellectual atmosphere has been poisoned. These measurement tools are not out to allow media to be more responsive to some pre-existing desires of the consumer, but to detect more moments of vulnerablility in that consumer to implant desires, 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 manipulatable. 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 total, it becomes more true that we only exist as citizens when we are being measured, only when we are exposing ourselves to media, when we are shopping, 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, to be a part of society, even if that society seems flawed, as the alternative is to be antisocial, and to subject yourself to the intense negative scrutiny of the rest of your peers (to be thought of as a Unibomber or a utopian daydreamer or a hippie freak, et cetera). Hence 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 allows 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? All that effort to get you to choose one car over another. The ads making personalized pitches help remedy the problem of needing to shop but having no clue what to buy.

These personalized ads also help destroy the last remnants of community, the demographic. With the focus on indviduating and personalizing, fewer people will have any shared cultural experiences to draw on, and this undermines the formation of communities that have any kind of local context. You might share a tightly bound bundle of interests with a few hundred people around the country, but you’ll be dispersed throughout the landscape, 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 complete. 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 disrutped, there will be no other means of accessing the data. As we become more and more indivuated, more and more catered to in all of our idiosyncracies, 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.

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