Customization is taken for Granted

Today customization is typically taken for granted as a normal feature of social life, online and offline. When you and a friend are browsing the same website, you can expect to see different advertisements, which are based on algorithms that have been following your search and consumer habits. In an experiment meant to help her avoid being followed, science and technology studies (STS) scholar Janet Vertesi tried to keep her pregnancy private from the “bots, trackers, cookies and other data sniffers online that feed the databases that companies use for targeted advertising.”29 In the end she had to forego all baby- related searches and avoid all computer-based correspondence with family and friends that could end up on the data dragnet, and she paid for all pregnancy-related products by cash or gift cards.

But, crucially, these evasive efforts marked her as someone who was likely engaged in illicit activity, and her husband was flagged for purchasing too many gift cards: “a warning sign behind the cashier informed him that the store ‘has an obligation to report excessive transactions to the authorities.’” Upon further reflection, Vertesi declares: “No one should have to act like a criminal just to have some privacy from marketers and tech giants. But the data-driven path we are currently on – paved with the heartwarming rhetoric of openness, sharing and connectivity – actually undermines civic values and circumvents checks and balances.”30

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Moreover, despite all the talk of tailoring, it is never uniquely you who is hailed by such advertisements, but rather people “like you” are the crucial target. To be served under a regime of personalization, one must first be secured as a particular type of person, a social kind – the parameters of which are shaped by a variety of assumptions, racial and otherwise. This is not to say that such assumptions are automatically wrong or inherently “bad” in any straightforward sense of causing direct harm to an individual. Nor are they avoidable altogether. But rather, even as they are synthesized and tested in marketing departments, it is doubtful that such groupings and generalizations are vigorously analyzed as a basis and byproduct of deep-seated social inequities.

Despite this, one might reason that, without the ability to target different groups, we are left with false universals (think flesh-colored Band-Aids that are pinky beige, or emojis that only come in one color). Perhaps, then, a racial generalization is a step in the right direction, gesturing at least to recognizing different social identities and experiences. The optimistic way to look at discriminatory design, one could conclude, is more akin to discerning design, which may not fully account for individual nuances but nevertheless offers people a more tailored experience. Here is where we should pause. Because any time we are presented with a binary decision – bland generalization or spicy stereotype – it is important to ask what options are left out of the frame. If our choices are so narrowly defined, are they “choices” after all? By unsettling such binaries we can undertake a clear-eyed assessment of the politics and penalties of refusing racial fixes and

insist upon a far-reaching imagination of what alternatives are possible.

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