The glitterball life

One of the many contradictory aspects of being a social researcher is the profoundly ambivalent feelings it throws up about the filling in of questionnaires – that constricted sorting of the nuanced intricacies of life into simple yes/no categories, rating abstractions on a scale of one to ten or trying to place the incommensurable into rank order.  I make much of my living from the results of other people doing so but also, in my capacity as a filler-in, have grown to detest the process, which sometimes reduces me to a state of almost speechless rage.

As a filler-in, you might want to answer ‘yes but’ or ‘sometimes’ or ‘both’ or ‘it depends’ or ‘good in some ways but not in others’  but can only do this if the questionnaire designer has been able to imagine such a possibility in advance.  But the researchers in charge of the questionnaire design (sometimes including me) have other things in mind: cheapness; brevity; compatibility with other surveys; ease of analysis; the questions the policy-makers want answers to. Then there are the people (also sometimes including myself) who want to use the results – people in search of answers to new questions.hoping that somewhere out there, the ‘facts’ exist that can prove, or disprove our hypotheses.

I can remember my fury, back in the 1970s, when, doing some research on the impact of technological change on women’s employment, I discovered that the only people who had gone back through all the census data since the beginning of the 20th century to examine changes in occupation by industry had not seen the importance of gender as a variable (perhaps they even thought it sexist to draw attention to it?) so they had added up the figures for the men and the women and presented them in an undifferentiated way, thus rendering their research entirely useless for anybody interested in gender segregation in the workforce by occupation and industry and requiring it to be done all over again. But I was equally furious, if not more so, when a few months ago, having spent a long time filling in a detailed online questionnaire intended to collect information about academics’ experiences of the REF (Research Excellence Framework) process, I got to the last page only to discover that it would not let me ‘submit’ my response until I had told them whether I was (a) heterosexual (b) homosexual or (c) bisexual. There was no option to say ‘prefer not to say’ ( ‘none of your business’), ‘other’, ‘celibate’, ‘not sexually active’ or even ‘don’t know’ and I crossly gave up. But of course it is quite possible that my annoyance at being forced into this limited range of options and (unexpressible) opinion that my sexual preferences should not matter in relation to the stated aim of the survey, might on some future occasion be mirrored by an equally strong annoyance on the part of some researcher who wants to analyse the results by sexual orientation, exactly like my own reaction to those 1970s gender-suppressing academics.

For me, as a subject, abstracting various aspects of my identity as standardised units that can be combined in various permutations may be experienced as deeply dehumanising. For me, as a researcher, being able to analyse and compare these units across a population is a necessary precondition for spotting patterns that may not only enable us to understand changes that are taking place in society but also, if we are lucky, try to come up with solutions that can make that society more responsive to peoples’ needs. A contradiction, if ever there was one.

If this were just a problem peculiar to social research it would be easy to live with and we could rationalise it as a case of the good outweighing the bad; that participating in social research is in general a good thing, and, even if it isn’t, easy to opt out of. But alas, this is not the case. Digitalisation has made the filling in of forms an all-pervasive feature of everyday life. There’s no escaping it. Every time you apply for a job, open a bank account or book a flight, you have to enter information about yourself into a pre-defined form. And even when you are not consciously filling in a questionnaire you are still supplying information to somebody just about every time you navigate any website or enter a search term into google. We are all now familiar with the sorts of targetted advertising that results from the profiling that is based on the information we may have supplied voluntarily (e.g. age, postcode, relationship status, weight, height, number of children) when it is put together with the data generated by our online searches, our Facebook likes, our retweets and Alexa’s eavesdropping on our conversations over dinner.

It is a situation that has given rise to some of the most extraordinary paradoxes of our time. Total strangers can, via algorithms, have unrestricted access to the most intimate details of your life but you cannot even talk to your bank about our own money if you cannot remember the 3rd and 5th digits of your ‘memorable word’. All ‘for your own protection’, you must understand. The public and the private switch places constantly. You can sit on a bus and hear the overworked care assistant next to you talking on her mobile phone at the top of her voice to her (deaf?) patient about extremely private matters, but woe betide you if you take a photograph of your grandchildren in your local swimming pool. We are used to hearing the phrase ‘Data protection’ used as an excuse for anything from failing to inform parents about the suicide attempt of their 18-year-old to refusing to let you log on to a website after forgetting your password.

Social researchers have to jump through all sorts of hoops to collect data. You cannot interview somebody without their informed consent; you have to agree not to use the data for any other purpose than your stated intention; to anonymise it strictly; and to destroy it when the research is finished. Yet airlines can, without your consent, supply all your personal details to US Border security, right down to your meal preferences. And who knows who is listening in to your phone calls and reading your emails?

This sort of double standard is something it is easy to rant about, and many have done so, much more eloquently than I could. But that is not really what I want to write about here. What I am interested in is our ambivalence to the ever-multiplying supply of data which increasingly mediates the way we negotiate and understand our world, the ambivalence I discussed earlier in relation to being a social researcher but of which that forms only a tiny part. Most of us have come, if not to love, at least to rely on the way in which an individual item can be identified as a unique configuration of standard ingredients. Although it may be tempered by some sentimental nostalgia for the way things used to be, on the whole we welcome not having to trudge up and down the high street, asking in every likely shop for the obscure thing that we want but instead being able to google it. When I was a child you could go into a department store and find the department that sold cardigans and ask if they had a black one, in your size, made of wool, with long sleeves and pockets and an assistant would get them out and display them for you on a counter so you could decide which, if any, you wanted to try on. By the end of the 20th century, those same department stores, or at least the few that had survived, were organised as a series of concessions, by brand. So you would have to wander round, investigating, label by label, whether any such cardigans existed getting more tired and frustrated at every step (and with assistants few and far between). How nice, then, to be able simply to enter the search terms and find the very thing, without even having to get up from your chair. And yes, it might be a bit annoying to be targeted with ads for black cardigans every time you log on for the next few weeks (despite your ad blocker) but you might think that’s actually a small price to pay, when the convenience is multiplied across the whole range of goods and services you purchase.

What is perhaps more worrying is that, in this digital society, you are not just a shopper. Indeed, you are increasingly somebody who is shopped for. On the job market you offer yourself, using a standard form, as an assemblage of increasingly standardised ingredients (your qualifications, the languages you speak, the software packages you know, the companies and clients you have worked for, what you have earned, what you have made, or published) struggling to find some way of expressing your uniqueness (often via one of those excruciating cover letters in which you describe your ‘bubbly personality’, ‘passion for [whatever the ad said]’, ‘willingness to go the extra mile’ and ‘strong communication skills’). These days this self-advertising is more and more likely to be on an online platform in which not only are your past assignments visible, but so too are the ratings you have been given by the clients you carried them out for. (This is something I am doing research on right now; I won’t bombard you with details here.)

The old occupational identities are increasingly fractured as we become, for the purposes of the labour market, bundles of interchangeable attributes, each of which has to be described in standardised terms and be measurable even if the combination is unique. As such, we are also increasingly comparable to each other (and therefore potentially substitutable for each other) in a market which (at least in terms of information) is geographically unbounded. If you, in Dhaka, have the same skills profile as me, in London, and if the work is digitisable, then what is going to determine which of us is given the job?  As on the job market so in other aspects of life. Just as we may become used to understanding our employable selves as bundles of standardised skills and competences, we may also start to classify our social selves in terms of standardised sets of tastes and consumer choices. Does this lead to the same sorts of social anxiety, I wonder?

If I, as, let us say, a translator from German into Mandarin with a specialist knowledge of polymer science and experience of preparing texts for academic journals, feel competitively threatened by somebody else with the same skill set, might I also, as a person wanting to be loved and appreciated, feel competitively threatened by the thought that, however much I want to stand out in the crowd, there are lots of other people out there who like the same kind of music as me, wear the same brand of clothing and like watching the same movies. If I can be pinpointed so easily by a marketer’s algorithm, wherein lies my uniqueness? I might try to reassure myself with the feedback of others. Which, in these digital times, is now very easily quantifiable. But what if others get more ‘likes’ than me on Instagram, or swipes on Grindr? What if their Facebook posts are shared, or their tweets retweeted, more than mine? What then is my value?

A world in which identities can be described as collections of attributes which can be broken down ever more precisely into separate facets feels to me like one in which personalities are turned inside out. This is particularly visible in the process of finding friends and lovers. In the past, getting to know somebody might have been modeled as a process of peeling off outer layers, like the skin of an onion, to get to some kind of hidden internal essence (or ‘soul’, even). You might scan a crowd of strangers, uniformly grey,  to catch a sudden flash of eye contact that hinted at a possible connection which could then be explored tentatively. There were many false starts and a lot depended on chance. People whose lives were constrained socially might never meet a soulmate. But if you did it could take you completely by surprise (though the cliche of falling in love at first sight was probably vanishingly rare). One should not sentimentalise this, of course. Lots of matches were made by arrangement, built slowly into strong companionship from pretty loveless beginnings, or were never very happy at all. But I think it is fair to say that if and when one did ‘fall in love’, it was unpredictable, exciting and private.

Nowadays, significant numbers of people use online dating sites to find their partners. In the USA in 2018 the proportion of people who said that they had met their spouse or partner online was 12% among 18-30-year-olds, 13% among 30-44-year-olds and only fell below 10% among the over-65-year-olds. Nearly one internet user in five (19%) admitted to using dating websites or apps in 2017. And why not? In a world in which one shops online for everything else, it is completely logical to do so for sexual partners too, especially if you are too busy or temperamentally averse to seeking them out in noisy night-clubs, dubious bars or other physical venues. I know a number of happy couples who met each other that way. And yet, and yet… As the algorithms get more sophisticated I find myself recoiling ever more from the idea of being shopped for in this way. Instead of exploring people, one by one, from the outside in, what these sites do is abstract each separate facet and present them, searchably, for you to choose from, with as much as possible of what is internal carefully catalogued and displayed on the outside. You are asked to define what you want by skin colour, age, height, weight, income, politics, sexual preference, tastes in food and art and music, income and innumerable other variables, often, these days, linked together by artificial intelligence to produce  sophisticated psychological profiles which can be tested against yours for compatibility. Every aspect of your personality that can be captured is displayed publicly for inspection, like the tiny mirrors on a glitterball. A glitterball in which others might see their own characteristics diffracted and reflected. A glitterball among glitterballs. In a global mosaic of standardised attributes.

For me, this flies in the face of everything I want to believe in about human attraction and love and taste and the human ability to learn and change. The last thing I want is to be pinned down, for example, as somebody who likes a particular kind of music. One day I might love listening to Sarah Vaughan, another day I might be moved to tears by a Schubert sonata or stirred by the bell-like clarity of the opening notes of a Sam Cooke song. But more importantly I want to be open to be surprised by some other kind of music I haven’t even encountered yet, or learn to listen attentively to something I might have rejected out of hand in the past. And there is music in every category that bores or annoys me. In just the same way I have no idea who I might fall in love with. Whether it is a man or a woman, someone black, white, tall or short. Who knows? I might think I don’t like scientists and then find myself suddenly and inexplicably enchanted by one. What makes somebody attractive (or not) is profoundly mysterious. To label myself in advance as locked into a particular pattern of preference feels profoundly wrong. And it feels equally wrong to exclude others on the basis of some superficial (and possibly temporary and changeable) attribute.

I cannot think of anybody I really value in my life whom I would even have found had I selected them using conventional search terms. It is the accidents of synchronicity that, in my experience, lead to the best friendships as well as the greatest moments of creative inspiration. Am I a freak? Or do others feel the same? And should we be trying to find ways to put rounded and complete human beings back together in all their malleablity and unpredictability and inconsistentency and the essential unknowability that constitutes their deepest attraction? If so, how?

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