O'Reilly: Staying ahead of big data

"Instead of becoming a single people, Americans are

"Instead of becoming a single people, Americans are being sliced and diced by their individual traits for placement into new, ever-increasing categories for marketers to manipulate," writes William F. B. O'Reilly. (Credit: AP, 2008)

William F. B. O'Reilly

Portrait of Newsday/amNY columnist Bill O'Reilly (March 28, William F. B. O'Reilly

O’Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the

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A college classmate of my brother published a futuristic novel in the early 1980s in which every American was issued a bar code by the government for easy tracking and management. The book’s protagonist had a singular challenge plaguing his existence: His bar code number had been inadvertently switched with a one meant for a can of peas.

I don’t know if the book sold well — I can find no reference to it today — but what an entertaining and frightening premise for a mind bender.

It’s now 30 years later and we still don’t have bar codes assigned to us, as far as I know, but we may as well with the way we are tracked by political entities and the private sector. It's only a matter of time before government catches up.

Instead of issuing bar codes for each of us — how passe! -- we are assigned data points, without our knowledge, that are crunched and squeezed by supercomputers to note our every want and whim, and, more important, to predict our future ones. Indeed, each of us has become a data point in his or her own right, based on what we purchase, how we register to vote, what we read, where we live, what cars we drive, and how much money we make, among a thousand other things. We are a nation of data points.

This system of tracking and managing Americans works. It was the foundation of President Barack Obama's successful turn-out-the-vote operation that befuddled Republican pundits, including this one, and it will no doubt be used as efficiently by the GOP in the next presidential cycle.

The technology is being used at all political levels. In the race for State Senate in 37th District in Westchester County this year, people predicted to vote for the eventual winner, George Latimer (I worked for his opponent), were sent score cards by an independent expenditure group -- with individualized charts -- showing how their past voting participation in elections stacked up against that of their unidentified neighbors. It was a way of shaming voters into turning out.

How scary, how brilliant — although it's impossible to know just how much the ploy affected the race's outcome.

Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned an America in which we would be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content our character. King unfortunately failed to anticipate the coming digital age. One’s race is a chief data point among marketers today, especially political marketers, and one’s character can't be measured as easily as one's purchases or activities.

Instead of becoming a single people, Americans are being sliced and diced by their individual traits for placement into new, ever-increasing categories for marketers to manipulate. We are being collated by habit, rather than drawn together by common purpose.

As helpful as this can be — I like online advertisements tailored to me — there is something creepy and dehumanizing about the direction in which we are inexorably headed. It conjures Mao Zedong’s aborted plan during his calamitous Cultural Revolution to exchange names for numbers in China.

Every New Year’s I swear to eat less, exercise more and go to church regularly, only to end up hating myself for my failures by February. This year, I’m going to try something different, something fun, and maybe even patriotic.

My New Year’s resolution is to confound the data collectors. I invite others to join me.

Beginning Tuesday, I will lie to marketers and pollsters at every opportunity. I’m going to visit websites that specialize in things of no interest, like underwater basket weaving and sixth century cartography. I’m going to search Amazon.com for gerbil food (I don’t have a gerbil) and lefthanded scissors (I’m a righty). The next marketer who asks my ethnicity will be told I am Swazi and that my religion is Eckankar.

This will, of course, do nothing to slow the steady herding of Americans toward this or that thought, candidate, product or activity, but it will make this one American feel deviously freer in the coming year.

I wonder how long it will take before the marketers figure out I'm just "one of those" people prone to rebellion. They probably won't even have to create a category.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.