Tuesday, June 15, 2010

We're All Demographics Now

You haven't been able to buy any new music for months. Every single one of the 3000 songs on your iPod sounds flat and boring and you're languishing in the ennui of a tired playlist (57 channels and nothin' on). So you click on "Genius" in iTunes, or toodle over to Pandora, with the hopes of discovering something new and fresh. You plug in some of your favorites and then let the algorithms do their work, eager to see what the machine spits out for you to enjoy. You listen to a first unfamiliar song and instantly love it. The next one is great, too. The third song blows you away, and you click over to hear more from that CD. You're groovin' on almost everything generated by this machine-driven selection. Oh, Genius, how dost thou know me so well?


You score an Amazon gift card for your birthday and can hardly wait to spend it. You log in, start browsing. Amazon remembers everything you've bought and, almost like the friendly bookseller who's no longer in your neighborhood, starts making some personalized suggestions. "I know how much you liked Ian McEwan," Amazon almost says. "I bet you'd like Martin Amis' Pregnant Widow." Or "Since you subscribed to the New Yorker through Amazon," the site's algorithmic 'recommender' continues, "you would love Wells Tower's new collection. And don't miss Bill Clegg's new memoir. (That'll also jive with your little Oscar Wilde fetish.)" You act on all of these suggestions and take the stack with you to the cottage, and every single choice is right on the money. "I'm lovin' this Amis novel," you exclaim to your wife as the kids are splashing in the water. Thank you, omniscient Amazon recommender: thank you for knowing me, for taking an interest in me, for recognizing the singular individual that I am.


And then it hits you: Shit. I'm just another demographic, aren't I? I'm just another member of a market population, one more cookie-cutter citizen of some 35-44 demographic. Illusions of your singularity and autonomy are beginning to crumble around you. All around you are the predictable badges of your demographic: the Volvo wagon in the driveway with NPR set as "1" on the dial; the Sunday Times and New Yorker subscription; the reusable bags you take to the farmer's market; the microbrews in your fridge and the $12 wine in the rack; the Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver on your bookshelves; your algorithmically predictable playlists and Netflix cue...and all of your friends with their Volvos and Volkswagens and Subaru Outbacks who share your NPR listening habits and predilection for artsy films and folk music and being flummoxed by Fox News.

"Yes, yes," Genius says, "we know how different you are;" "Of course, of course," Amazon says, "we know how unique you are," as they add your ID to a tightly defined demographic that will, much to your chagrin, peg you every time.