Columns » Warwick Sabin

Too much information

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As part of a new marketing campaign, Acxiom Corporation last week began projecting a big blue “X” on the side of its downtown Little Rock headquarters. But the symbolism is backwards, because in its business, the data management company is not a target. You are.

Acxiom pioneered technology that organizes consumer data, and now it wants to highlight its ability to analyze that data to help its clients with marketing and other strategic priorities. “We make information intelligent” is the tagline that accompanies Acxiom’s new branding initiative.

The timing couldn’t be better, as almost every type of business is trying to more accurately target likely customers. According to a recent article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, retailers in Little Rock’s new Midtowne center utilized “psychographics” to determine where to locate their new stores. In an increasingly competitive environment, mere demographic information — which is more detailed than ever before — is not enough. Now, behavioral scientists can pinpoint shopping habits by zip code, separating the “brand loyalists” from the “impulse buyers.”

It’s hardly shocking to learn that birds of a feather flock together. We have our own cultural shorthand and stereotyped expectations based on where people live, and more often than not, the preconceptions hold true. Even without the help of consumer data, an organic bakery and a gun shop wouldn’t normally end up next to each other.

So you can’t fault businesses for using the most advanced technology available, or Acxiom for offering it to them.

But the same techniques are finding their way into the hands of political strategists, who are applying them to voter identification and outreach. While that sounds logical and inevitable, it has consequences that already are altering our democracy in fundamental ways.

For example, leaders in both major parties are perfecting the art of gerrymandering districts at the local, state and federal levels to create safe seats for themselves. Armed with ever more sophisticated and exact data about voting patterns, they draw lines that take unnatural twists and turns, sometimes dividing neighbors who live across the street from each other.

This kind of manipulation not only helps incumbents, who already enjoy more than enough advantages under the current system. It also contributes to a more divisive political atmosphere, because with like-minded voters grouped together, there is no incentive for their representatives to moderate or compromise with other lawmakers. The best way to impress the folks back home is to exhibit ideological purity, which explains much of the extremism we’re seeing in Washington these days.

Tough luck if you’re one of those unpredictable types who chooses to live among people who are a little different than you are. You have no chance to have your interests represented, especially as data analysis improves and further isolates you into a smaller minority.

You’ll also be ignored by candidates, if they decide in advance you’re no use to them. One political consultant described to me in detail the winning strategy he employed in an important Arkansas municipal race. Using the latest election and polling data available, he sent his client not only to certain neighborhoods, but to certain houses, knocking on some doors but skipping others on the same street. Likely allies received a handshake and a smile and were encouraged to vote. Everyone else was carefully avoided.

That may be efficient and effective, but our representative system is threatened when it can be engineered to engage some people and marginalize others. Your rights are not infringed when Pottery Barn favors your neighbor with a sale circular because he has a documented weakness for mahogany furniture. But you have a fair complaint when your elected officials can safely and willfully discount your concerns because your voting record shows you’re part of the minority. They are supposed to represent everyone, after all.

Since the problem will only get worse as more of our personal information is organized and analyzed, we should respond by at least adopting a non-partisan redistricting process. In Iowa, for instance, the panel that draws legislative boundaries is prohibited from considering previous election results or even the addresses of incumbents. Less information, not more, is the key to fairness in these matters. Only geographic common sense should govern where the lines go.

As it becomes easier to divide and separate us by what we think and believe, we should do whatever we can to ensure that citizens are treated equally, without regard to personal characteristics and behavior. In the end, all of us may be transparent collections of predictable preferences, but we’re entitled to a government that hardly knows us.

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