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Profiling Machines: Mapping the Personal Information Economy

Author: Greg Elmer
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: November 2005

 REVIEW 1: Timothy D. Ray

We all know that we oftentimes unwittingly and unwillingly give away personal information as we go about our daily lives. We'd rather not, and at times we resist and refuse, but, in today's technologized society, it's rather difficult not to. In fact, increasingly, consumers find that they are required to give up personal information in exchange for goods and services and that attempting not to can short-circuit or nullify a transaction. The effects on our personal privacy are immense, evoking images of a "Big Brother" that is aware of all of our actions and transactions in life, be they financial or otherwise. In Profiling Machines: Mapping the Personal Information Economy, Greg Elmer, Bell Globemedia Research Chair in the Rogers Communications Centre/School of Radio-TV Arts at Ryerson University, editor of Critical Perspectives on the Internet, and co-editor of the journal Space and Culture, explores the evolution of the technologies that have made this possible, the theoretical discussions that have evolved alongside the technology, and how the information gained by such technologies is being used not so much by an Orwellian state bent on maintaining order and control, but rather by industries and advertisers to create profiles of consumers and thereby map out a new economic system -- an economy of personal information and profiles.

In this somewhat brief (less than 150 pages) but rather dense text, Elmer explores not only the evolution and manifestation of this personal information economy, but the cultural, social, and political repercussions as well. In Elmer's words, the book focuses on "the complex technological elements of profiling within our consumer culture" (135). In doing so, Elmer positions capitalism -- not national or international security or law enforcement or a totalitarian state -- as the "Big Brother" in all this -- the regime that stands to benefit the most from this personal information economy that is built on profiling, a practice that comes at the expense of personal information and, by implication, personal privacy.

Starting from a discussion of panoptic surveillance popularized in the writing of French philosopher Michel Foucault, particularly in Discipline and Punish, Elmer finds such a model of surveillance isn't always an accurate description of what's happening in today's computerized society and in the personal information economy. In this discussion, he is careful to note different types of surveillance used by industries and advertisers in the personal information economy that request or require consumers to surrender personal information, reward consumers who do surrender personal information, and punish consumers who try to avoid surrendering personal information. Whether surrendered willingly or unwillingly, all of this consumer information, when cross-indexed and compiled from different sources, results in the creation of consumer profiles, which Elmer describes as "simulations or pictures of consumer likes, dislikes, and behaviors that are automated within the process of consuming goods, services, or media and that increasingly anticipate our future needs and wants based on our aggregated past choices and behaviors" (5-6). And it is the reward/punishment binary, Elmer argues, that drives the information economy, both from the consumer's end -- as they variously buy into or attempt to opt out of various information exchanges -- and from the producer's end as they increasingly try to refine their intelligence-gathering through rewards and punishments designed to induce consumers to comply with requests and demands for personal information.

Elmer's opening chapter, "The Culture and Technologies of Profiling," provides an introduction to the current situation of an information-driven economy and the act of profiling while also providing an introduction to some of the relevant literature in the fields of media studies, information management, and surveillance. In terms of how we got to the current personal information economy, Elmer says that things as divergent but convergent as the cold war, the population of outer space, and the population of cyberspace have led to a situation where "established definitions of nation, state, territory, citizenship, and consumption -- all fundamental tropes of modernity -- have been called into question" (3).

In his discussion of the relevant literature in the field, Elmer begins with Foucault's arguments of panopticism but filters it through Gilles Deleuze's thoughts on information circulation in decentralized "societies of control" (5). He also includes discussions of space and "dataveillance" and a preliminary discussion of the politics of profiling, which he elaborates on in the closing chapter. Elmer's efforts, in his words, are to "connect the practices of everyday consumption with a broad information apparatus that forecasts and simulates sociospatial relationships and new media capabilities" (5).

Elmer also unpacks his key terms in his opening chapter, showing how the term "surveillance" isn't adequate, noting that it doesn't properly capture the multiplicity of processes involved in requests for information and doesn't capture the social significance of requiring the divulgence of personal information. While not actually replacing "surveillance" with another term like "dataveillance," Elmer says that the implications of requesting and requiring information are best described as constructing profiles. The chapter provides a broad yet succinct discussion of the culture and technologies of profiling in an organized manner and also lays an overview of the rest of the text.

In his second chapter, "A Diagram of Panoptic Surveillance," Elmer argues that literal readings of Foucault's writings have hindered the development of a theory of panoptic surveillance because such readings have focused primarily on physical surveillance rather than virtual surveillance. Elmer notes how some scholars have problematicized the panoptic concept, saying that contemporary media technologies (television, the web, sporting events, etc.,) are defined by the many watching the few -- a synoptic relationship -- the inverse of a panoptic relationship, but Elmer faults these scholars for largely neglecting to comment on how panoptic and synoptic relationships work together. Elmer then works through concepts of dataveillance, enticement (reward/punish), and synopticism in a clear and easy-to-follow manner.

Chapter 3, "Consumption in the Network Age: Solicitation, Automation, and Networking," focuses on how the development of forms of solicitation, automation, and networking played a part in the construction of an economy built on personal information. Initially, Elmer focuses on buzzwords, abbreviations, and acronyms and how they work in all this, particularly in terms of solicitation. According to Elmer, buzzwords, abbreviations, and acronyms all work through a process called "linkage advertising" in which images, symbols, and words provide a means through which consumers can call, write, e-mail, access the web, etc., to request additional information. This speaks to the changing nature of the business and the awareness that marketing to a general public isn't the most cost-effective strategy. The new strategy, "mass customization," allows for the possibility of marketing products to service a market of one, if customers were thoroughly willing participants. Even without complete consumer cooperation, the information that consumers provide, whether or not they consciously and willingly do so, is constantly being cross-referenced on a "multilogic" level. Elmer further notes that some scholars have argued that the database is a new media form -- an open-ended narrative that is constantly being written by the user/consumer. Elmer uses web browsing and its use of caching and cookies as an example.

Elmer uses the U.S. Census as an example of how the process of demographics evolved and was inherently an attempt not simply to count individuals, but to categorize and weight them, with early censuses making clear racial and sexual distinctions, with some people being counted at less than one. The 1870 censuses, for example, used a machine that allowed for the ability to cross-tabulate information, thus allowing the construction of a demographic profile of different segments of the population. By 1940, profiles enabled population sampling, which allowed for information to be applied to an entire demographic group without having to survey the entire group. By the 1970s, the Census Bureau's Data User Services Division was providing demographic data to a wide variety of groups, including market researchers.

In terms of automation, Elmer notes that while early tabulation technologies were tied closely to the history of the census, production and inventory technologies faced obstacles of timeliness which were often worked out through the application of such technologies to transportation systems. The evolution of the real-time computer was one such technology, with American Airlines leading the way in automating the reservation process. Applying a tracking technology like airline reservations to consumers and their behavior in other business settings took a major step forward with the development of the bar code in the 1960s and '70s. Bar codes allowed tracking at a new level of specificity and individuality and opened the door to point-of-purchase (POP) advertising and marketing. POP techniques have grown to include customized coupons that are tailored to a customer's purchase history and mail-in rebate offers that make use of questionnaires to gather even more demographic data than a customer would normally provide. While much of what Elmer discusses in this chapter may be familiar on some level to some readers, his thorough historicization of these confluent technologies makes it easy for readers to see a clear progression of these technologies.

Chapter 4, "Mapping Profiles," focuses on the importance of geographic data and mapping technologies, and in doing so critiques the Foucaultian notion of architecture in studies of personal information. The chapter discusses on mapping technologies through the writings of Foucault and Deleuze on power, space, and diagram-as-map. The chapter describes the development of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software and "cleansing" programs which continually update the data to provide an accurate map of the data. The chapter also describes the development of GPS and its role in tracking and mapping. Through mapping and tracking technologies, Elmer argues, "research and sales become one in the same, informing each other's rules, regulations, and practices" (89). Elmer's discussion of mapping technologies makes it easy to see mapping not simply as a two-dimensional practice, but also as a three-dimensional (and even four-dimensional, if you include time) practice involving density of populations and information.

Chapter 5, "Deploying Profiles in Promotional Events," focuses on how "mini-events" are examples of how the advertising industry occasionally addresses the limitations of recall-based advertising (print, television commercials, billboards). Profiles are essential in the staging of these mini-events because they help the advertiser to target customers most effectively. Sometimes the advertiser actually hosts the event and other times sponsors the event. Some of these events are then captured in additional advertising (print, television, giveaways), making the consumer part of the marketing effort to other similar consumers. Several noteworthy events (most notably, the Molson Polar Beach Party involving a concert staged north of the Arctic Circle for a group of contest-winners) are detailed.

Chapter 6, "The 'State' of the Panoptic Medium," notes how "the web browser and its use of cookies have played central roles in automating, to varying degrees, the collection of web users' personal information" (112). The effectiveness of the information retrieval is reinforced by a reward/punish system; users who attempt to disable cookies or bypass required fields in forms are denied a fully functional and interactive browser experience, often being told, interestingly enough, that they have produced an "error" in their efforts to access a page on a site. As a result, Elmer argues, "web cookies have effectively produced a symbiotic, panoptic relationship at the interface of the browser and the web" (112). This "symbiotic, panoptic" state of things with cookies and the web has led to privacy concerns and a rise in the phenomenon of identity theft. This state also took a decentered Internet and provided it with a network of connections -- paths -- of and for behavior, which, when coupled with indexing, enabled searching and successful e-tailing. Much of the chapter details the evolution of the use of cookies in the Netscape browser by version, which is maybe more information than most readers in this field really need, but it does reinforce Elmer's thoroughness as a scholar.

While there are indications of the politics of profiling throughout the text, Elmer considers the political implications of profiling most explicitly in his final chapter. In chapter 7, "The Politics of Profiling," Elmer discusses profiling in relation to "cultural studies of technology, media, and consumption, particularly as it applies to politics" (134). One example of the politics of profiling that Elmer discusses is racial profiling. According to Elmer, racial profiling "moves beyond individual acts of prejudice and racism by law enforcement officers to the realm of institutional policy" whose "power" serves to "discriminate populations in search of possible transgressors" (137). In discussing racial profiling, Elmer sends a strong message about the pitfalls of profiling.

In working toward a conclusion, Elmer says that, in the book, he has attempted to "highlight the manner in which individuals have become an integral part of the reproduction of consumer markets" (142). In doing so, he takes a clear-headed look at the technologies, practices, theories, and implications of profiling and of the personal information economy without sounding the trumpet of an Orwellian chicken little. Indeed, there is very little of a reactionary tone in Elmer's book, just a calm description of how we have arrived at a personal information economy. Probably the closest Elmer comes to a foreboding tone is in his closing words, which are decidedly political and also hopeful in a counterhegemonic way, gravitating back to the issue of power. To wit: "Media and cultural criticism must begin to challenge not only dominant words, images, and texts but also the techniques and technologies that prescribe, regulate, and provide access to (and control over) political, economic, and cultural forms of power" (145). The "or else" is not given, but it might be possible to conclude that, if we don't challenge these things as media and cultural critics, then we become complicit in allowing these techniques and technologies to run our lives.

All in all, Greg Elmer's Profiling Machines: Mapping the Personal Information Economy is an insightful and extremely relevant read for anyone interested in issues of personal information, personal privacy, profiling, and the technologies of profiling and mapping.

Timothy D. Ray:
Timothy D. Ray is an Assistant Professor of English at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, West Chester, PA. His research interests include computers and writing, the rhetoric of technology, digital culture/cyberculture, and technology and society.  <tray@wcupa.edu>

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