Thursday, May 14, 2009

I Want To Be Me

I once wrote a script for a short film titled “The Year Nobody Gave.” It illustrated the tragic outcome if the money stopped coming to the particular charity that paid for the making of the film. It pointed out the terrible tragedy that would result for the recipients of the charity’s largesse. It was meant to scare the bejesus out of the good people who never gave to the charity and to encourage the regular givers to cough up more money.

I am reminded of that film by a number of recent solicitations on the phone, on the Internet and on the street corners to answer survey questions designed to discover my preferences for various products, political leanings and specific attitudes to this or that.

In other words, they want something from me. They want me to give them my personal treasure. I choose not to.

I never respond to these surveys. It is an act of rebellion. I refuse to have my preferences pigeonholed and numbers crunched into some statistical mish mash designed to create a strategy for some advertiser or politician to gain access to the pockets or votes of other people, myself included.

It is the results of these statistical surveys that determine pretty much everything that we buy, watch, listen to and vote for. Our behavior is tracked, parsed, coded, sliced and diced and categorized into every conceivable subset from our age, race, sex, geography, language, down into every personal detail of our daily doings. We are literally stripped naked, externally and internally. Our individuality is broken down into sub-atoms of attitude and preference. Our uniqueness has been erased by the tsunami of the marketers.

If this sounds like high dudgeon, it should. Even though I know that the statisticians have now put people like me into a new category marked rebellious, difficult and non-conforming, I take my stand strictly on the basis that it is nobody’s damned business what I prefer, what I eat, what I think, what I read, what I watch, what I listen to, what sexual preferences and fantasies turn me on, what I love and what I can’t stand. I hate the idea that everything that I am will become a statistic that will determine some mass activation of a product or an idea.

I am well aware that the powerful statistical survey industry will find ways to ridicule my revolutionary tone and come up with a thousand reasons why my attitude is counter productive to the mass culture and somehow destructive to our values and dangerous to our commercial and political system. They will point to the accuracy of their surveys and analysis and cite scientific evidence that underlines their theories.

From their point of view, the accuracy of their statistics proves their worth. They will claim that such statistics are the heart of game strategies. By their surveys and statistical analyses they claim they can predict future outcomes. If that is true, then we must have some built-in instinctual herd instinct gene, much like sheep, who are controlled by a few sheep dogs, who round us up, and lead us to be sheared or slaughtered.

It could be that most people want to be herded, told what to eat, vote, buy, do. It comes under the umbrella of “community.” Many people may really want to be like everyone else within their preset category. Billions of dollars are bet on such statistical outcome predictions. Game theory depends on it. Indeed, they may be right. So what?
I am probably an anomaly, outside the mainstream. Actually, I believe in community and am willing to observe tribal rules. I am not an outlaw, but I prefer being an outsider, a non-participant to these obvious manipulations. There are many people who don’t understand that they are being manipulated. Nor do they care. I do. It violates my sense of self.

There are certain inner boundaries that I consider sacrosanct. There is something inside me that cries out for my individuality. I do everything in my power not to be pigeonholed. I don’t want to tear down the structure, I just want to declare ownership of my secret private place and to keep it locked away from prying eyes and ears.

In another age such an attitude would by symptomatic of the once acclaimed label of “rugged individualism”, a term much derided in our contemporary world.

I keep wondering what would happen if none of us ever answered a single survey or gave away our inner treasuries, the core of ourselves. Indeed, I have often been tempted to answer such surveys by deliberately giving false testimony, but that seems a bit too aggressively sinister and telling deliberate lies goes against my grain.

I do recognize that this lofty ambition to preserve my individuality may be an exercise in futility. In today’s world the computer is the instrument of our personal revelation. Our statistics are being stolen from us. Big brother and sister are watching, listening and slotting us into categories. We are stripped naked, unarmed and undefended from the hucksters who, like ardent obsessive fisherman, troll to land us, strip us, bake and broil us to better consume our essence.

I realize this is a harsh indictment. Any software novice will tell you that we are being parsed and coded every time we power on our computer or land on a website. This means, that despite my highfalutin rebel cry, we are being perpetually monitored, analyzed and categorized.

Perhaps I am baying at the moon and there is no place to hide, although I am forever hopeful that technology will find a way to come up with an automatic blocking mechanism. Maybe they already have.

Which brings me back to the point of this essay. What would happen if nobody “gave”? What would happen if all of our thoughts and actions, our preferences, our yearnings, our hope and fears, our choice of products, politicians and pleasures were magically blocked? Would manufacturers suffer because they would not be able to know what would attract the buyer of the manufacturer’s product? Would politicians be unable to tailor their promises to specific categories of potential voters? Would financiers refuse to gamble on businesses that cannot “prove” their need by research and statistical analysis? Would advertising messages be too scattershot to be effective?

The fact is that even with the aggressive pursuit of profiling potential customers and voters, of researching every nook and cranny of our preferences, businesses still fail at an astounding rate, politicians lose, products come and go, and the laws of unintended consequences happen with remarkable repetitiveness.

What would happen if we kept our mouths zipped to any survey taker that crosses our path and managed to escape all surveillance methods on the Internet or wherever? Would the fragile pole which holds up the consuming tent collapse?

I offer no panaceas, no hopeful strategic hints. Maybe I’m just throwing pennies into a bottomless wishing well. Call me selfish, egocentric, delusionary.
Fire up Google and ask for “I want to be me…” lyrics. There are nearly fifty eight million hits in the index.

Nice to know I’m not alone.


jentropy said...

That's an admirable pursuit, but there is no need for surveys when you are active in any electronic environment. If you check your blog statistics now, you'll see that I arrived here from your main site, I browse with Safari, I connect through Comcast and I'm in Washington. If you follow my profile, you'll discover the content I create, which may include more accurate data than any survey could extract. My credit cards and store memberships track every purchase preference. My phone service knows my contacts and content of text messages. Search engines know all my search terms. Comcast knows where I travel online. This participation creates a profile of "me" and everyone just like me, and marketers can choose how to use that information to solicit business. Of course, this could work to our benefit. I think it remains to be seen. I do think the ignorant will suffer most, while the informed learn to use it to their advantage. That said, I do admire you for sticking to your guns and sharing your beliefs openly.

Writer Hugo Roberts said...


June 11, 2009. What I wrote on March 16, 2009 in reaction to Mr. Warren Adler’s The E-Book Revolution, stirred lively discussions among my readers, my friends, and me. It was also posted on

In my comment (eBooks or Paper Books?) I wrote that “…digital books are easier to use and enjoy than the paper ones... [also] for ... research.” This interesting discussion is going on for a long time; read, for example, THE END OF BOOKS by John H. Lienhard, or Coover, R., The End of Books. The New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1992.
These discussions stimulated me to write the following sequel.

For me digitization is not progressing fast enough; for others, it’s like an approaching tsunami. Washington Post published a letter to the editor expressing fear that “…Google will be privatizing our libraries."

It turns out that Google was the only one willing to invest in the gargantuan project of digitizing millions of books held by libraries. A response to this op. ed. letter stated that “...the print works of the 20th century will be searchable, findable, readable and generally usable online, with large parts of the text readable online for free. [And that...] publicly owned library and others will keep print and digital copies safely in not-for-profit hands.”

Wikipedia states that Google Book Search is a tool from Google that searches the full text of books that Google scans, converts to text using optical character recognition, and stores in its digital database. The service was formerly known as Google Print when it was introduced at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2004.

Google has been working on digitization and book search since 1997 and was sued repeatedly for copyright infringement. Despite all this resistance progress is being made. In the second letter to the editor I quoted from in the above, the author declares: “As the steward of one of those libraries, a library that has had some 3 million of its works digitized by Google, let me assure readers that Google will not have a monopoly on the information that we hold.”

Three million sounds like a lot, until you realize that it’s estimated that there are 300 to 400 books published every day. Digitizing them is an ongoing and necessary chore, but there is more...

As you already know, computers and Internet have changed the appearance of text drastically. No more drab pages and pages of black on white text, but colorful, moving, text that seems to be alive. Text that’s often integrated with other media. These are exciting times. Let me leave you with a quote from Hyperizons that boggled my mind. I understand that since the early nineteen-nineties, authors, scholars, and technicians have been working on expanding the appearance and function of literature with
“...hypertext fiction (aka hyperfiction, interactive fiction, nonlinear fiction) [it] is a new art form that while not necessarily made possible by the computer was certainly made feasible by it. Its creators make use of hypertext--of which the Web is only one widespread albeit limited incarnation--to create fiction with many features uncharacteristic of print fiction: multiple paths through the same text; multiple endings (and beginnings); questions posed to the reader which, once answered, influence what the reader will read; audiovisual attachments; navigable maps; and so on and so on. Readers seeking more extensive definitions of hypertext fiction are invited to browse through the Theory and Criticism section or, better yet, simply start reading a few works--artists always outstrip their would-be definers.”