Beyond Privacy: Invasion of the Data Snatchers

Has the rugged individual fallen prey to the demographic profile? And should you care?

| March-April 2000

Unless you’ve been living underground for 20 years, you know what it’s like to be demmed. That is the term we’ve coined for reducing someone, or being reduced, to demographic data. Maybe you’ve bought a book online and the site suggests several more you’re sure to love. Or you’re hounded by telemarketers who somehow know you’re a single teacher who owns a dog and drives a German car. Far worse, you suspect that even the most personal details of your life are being traded by everyone from your boss and your doctor to the computer voyeur across the street.

Honey, you’ve been demmed!

The privacy debate weaves around and through the following articles, but it’s not the whole story. The more we read as we assembled this section, the more intrigued we became by the deeper issue: how the demming of America is changing the modern sense of self. What does it mean to live at a time when your life is an open book? How do you respond to those who study your habits and desires in hopes of shaping them? Is it possible to be anonymous anymore-and should anyone want to be?

With the official U.S. Census Day scheduled for April 1, it seems the perfect time for this discussion. The increasing power of modern demography has its boons. In this country, at least, counting the people, by the people, has always been viewed as crucial to the democratic process. And data mapping lies at the heart of successful urban planning, epidemiology, and public health.

But doubts linger. Will more and more demming reduce individuals to the empty space inside the data that defines them, stripping them of all that makes them unique, most notably their human faces? Many fear that gathering so much information in so many databases will invite misuse. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, what about absolute knowledge?

Though we seem to have entered an age of data determinism, not everyone is daunted. Many shrug it off as a fact of modern life. Others, like Scott Savage, the author of our opening essay, choose a more radical path. His choices may not be yours, but that’s partly the point. Who you are remains a question you can answer for yourself, if you’re willing to live your life as a creative act-and if you’re prepared to pay the price.

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