Not too long ago, I helped design an interface for some popular mapping software. As I learned one day in a Southern Californian office park conference room, a popular use for this software is the visualization of “market segmentation.” Imagine that Starbucks wants to open a new location. They might want a map to show where existing Starbucks locations are and aren’t, and where people are and aren’t. And not just any kind of person—they might want to know where the kind of people that they imagine going to Starbucks are. This is market segmentation. This particular company split people up into 100 segments, 100 types of households—each a particular amalgamation of income, race, household composition, and consumer preferences. The actual market segment “Laptops and Lattes” describes people “with no home ownership or child-rearing responsibilities, singles who live alone or with a roommate. The average household size is 1.8. The median age is 37.6 years. Although most of the population is white, Asians represent 10.4 percent of the total population. This segment is affluent; the median household income of $84,612 supports these residents.” Every census tract in America is then assigned a value based on how many instances of each kind of household are present (or predicted). And thus decisions are made.
Market segmentation abstracts people into assemblies of traits—traits that allow corporate deciders to make predictions. The desire is for “actionable” data. The assumption that you meet the description of the kind of person who might want a Starbucks (based on your income, race, household size, gender, etc.) is factored into a calculation on a map, and it leads to the construction of that actual Starbucks in the world. The category presupposes and then generates the reality.
We are often led to believe that identity politics are the product of social movements. But those who think about the politics of self-determination make up just a tiny segment of those who structure their understanding of the world around “identities.” The actual practice of identity politics is mostly done by governments, politicians, marketing departments, demographers, and corporations —anyone who needs to “target” services, products, or less friendly modes of contact. Whether as citizen, resident, or consumer, you are being hailed by your categories right now.
Historian Mathew Hannah coined the term “statistical citizenship” to describe the political power of our participation in the count. His primary example is the census. The way you fill out a census card may have a greater effect on your neighborhood and your life than how you fill out your ballot. How many services are offered, and of what kind?
Visitor Survey presents some of the primary categories used to hail individuals and households in the United States as subjects (the US Census), bodies (the National Health Survey) and consumers (the Survey of the American Consumer). These categories have been designed to make predictions about your behavior, what you care about, and what you will do in the future.
Demographers have distinct ideas about which of your categories mean the most about you, and by “mean,” they mean the categories that can predict the most about your future behaviors. These judgments are given concrete significance by the weight that the algorithm of something like market segmentation accords your data.
Visitor Survey is less interested in your answers to the questions it asks, and more interested in creating a space to imagine your own weighing system. Can you take the reigns of your own categorization? What categories do you believe are most fundamental to your life? In which categories can you imagine working for political solidarity? How do these align? How adequately do they describe your intentions?
Rosten Woo is an artist, designer, and educator living in Los Angeles. He produces civic-scale artworks and works as a collaborator and consultant to a variety of grassroots and non-profit organizations including the American Human Development Project, the Black Workers Center, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, as well as the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. His work has been exhibited at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial, the Venice Architecture Biennale, Netherlands Architectural Institute, Storefront for Art and Architecture, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and various piers, public housing developments, tugboats, shopping malls, and parks. He is co-founder and former executive director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a New York based non-profit organization dedicated to using art and design to foster civic participation. rostenwoo.biz