Wood that works

Why demographics creeps me out

Remember “identity politics”? Back in the 80s, it was one of the intellectual hallmarks of the left, because it espoused one simple but powerful philosophical idea: That one’s background — ethnic, national, gender, etc. — informed a heck of a lot of one’s experiences, and thus one’s attitudes towards society and life. It isn’t a terribly new idea; hell, half of The Republic is devoted to Socrates intellectually bitchslapping people based on the inherent limits of their subjectivity and personal experiences.

Nonetheless, by the early 90s, identity politics got an incredibly bad name. Partly it was the fault of pointy-headed left-wing pundits, who used it to shout down people whose arguments they didn’t like. But partly it was right-wing backlash: Conservatives didn’t like all these emerging discussions of racism or sexism or poverty, and went on the counterattack by arguing insistently that one’s identity just didn’t matter. If you were successful, it was because you deserved it. If you weren’t, it’s because you sucked. Identity politics, claimed the right, was an intellectual abomination. It ignored people’s individuality.

Yet the thing is, back in the 90s, the free-market right became obsessed with its own style of identity politics: Demographics. Marketers began carving up the public into increasingly smaller cohorts, convinced that if they could just know enough basic points about your background — age, gender, zip code, education — they could figure out exactly what you’d want to buy. They had your ticket punched. Who cared about your actual personality? A person was nothing more than a set of tick-boxes filled in by a telephone survey profiler. It was Irshad Manji (the writer who’s currently author of a cool book about the fate of Islam in the modern age) who first made this point in a conversation with me. “Demographics,” she said, “is the conservative version of identity politics.”

Just like left-wing identity politics, demographics is an powerful and useful idea that becomes incredibly creepy when taken to its logical extreme by bug-eyed converts. This occurred to me recently while surfing the marketing section of MSN, where its salesforce has assembled a few “personae” in which they try to explain the different people who use the service. There’s nothing unique about their categories — they’re pretty standard-issue marketing-speak — but they do remind you of how weirdly smug demographics can be. There’s this weirdly high-school vibe to it all. It’s like listening to some self-satisfied Queen Bee cheerleader reel off all the categories into which she’s slotted the people around her: Punk, emo, b-boy, preppy.

Check out MSN’s list of characters. That woman in the picture above? It’s “Marie”, who is “age 33-44”, and “a married mom trying to juggle the demands of her family, along with handling her part time business.”

(Thanks to the Plasticbag blog for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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