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Warren Adler

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Keeping the Sheep Dogs at Bay

Posted: 09/06/11 06:41 PM ET

I never respond to surveys. It is an act of rebellion. I refuse to have my preferences pigeonholed and numbers crunched into some statistical mishmash 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.

I keep wondering what would happen if all of our thoughts and actions, our preferences, our yearnings, our hopes 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.

All I want to do is keep the sheep dogs at bay.

Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include "The War of the Roses," "Random Hearts" and the PBS trilogy "The Sunset Gang." He is a pioneer in digital publishing. For more information visit Warren's website at www.warrenadler.com.

 
 
 

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