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Dividuals and Democratic Data

Are we more than just data points?

ENFJ. Those are the results from the Myers-Briggs personality test I took online. The option to share my results flashed on the screen and, with a click, just my 638 closest Facebook friends were able to see and like my results. At least that is what I thought.

Big Data has gotten a lot of buzz lately. Whether you have heard of it or not, every time you visit a site, “like” a post, or take an online quiz, you are willingly donating yourself to data companies in order to extract even more money directly from your pockets through advertising. But what if it isn’t just about deciding to buy a new pair of shoes? What if big data is using your information to help market some of the bigger decisions we make?

In Gilles Deleuze Postscript of Modern Society, he coins the term dividuals, which is the post mass/individual pair that has turned individuals into “masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks” (5, 1992). This shift from individual to dividual is presumably what ultimately led to this use of Big Data. Deleuze argues we are now in a control society, which means we are in a constant orbit of networks that we are unable to opt out of. All of our information is accessible due to lenient U.S legislation. Big data companies, advertisers and the government are able to target specific people and communities with tailored messages that best feed into their personality. Every part of us is virtually for sale to companies so they can sell ourselves back to us. And it does not stop at consumer goods; it has now extended into our political realm and is shaping the way we engage with democratic systems.

The 2016 U.S. election was arguably won on Big Data. President Donald Trump hired Cambridge Analytica, a U.K. based company, that collects all of the free information from the Internet and employs psychometrics to determine an individual’s consumer and political tastes through a theory of personality known as the “Big Five,” which rests on the personality constructs of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (referred to as OCEAN). Trump hired the company to gather the personalities and data points of 220 million U.S. adults through surveys, “likes,” and interactions on social media, in order achieve one of the Trump campaign’s major goals: to suppress potential Clinton voters in niche communities. One form of suppression was the targeting of Facebook users in Miami’s Little Haiti with posts about the Clinton Campaign’s failure in Haiti. This is a form of control according to Deleuze, who saw this targeting of a demos as a functioning of the network that surveils, collects and curates the individual, which ultimately infringes upon the individual’s freedom. The big data companies are identifying and placing us into categories in order to best advertise, advise, and ultimately determine our reactions. This power lies in the hands of corporations that are cutting deals and assisting governments globally. Cambridge Analytica has already taken meetings with a few countries in Europe as well as Australia.

What are the future implications? That can only be determined by the individual. Do you believe that the information you publicize through Facebook ‘likes’ and online surveys really taps into your ultimate personality? Due to the monetary and capitalistic nature of the data use, should individuals be payed or protected? Is it still a democracy if these methods are being used? I think Deleuze would argue that this is taking away the individual’s rights and freedoms, perpetuating the control society in an even more insidious manor.

Still, the information lies within the people, and once the people are more and more aware of these practices, they will become more and more wary of the information they give and receive. Once aware though, it is hard to believe that you can be boiled down to a data point. It is important to question when ‘who you are’ ends and ‘who they want you to be’ begins. I would like to think I’m much more complex than my Myers-Briggs results but still I find myself falling into a black hole of content — crafted by myself, and curated and reproduced by corporations — that quite well suits an ENFJ.

Michelle Mason

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