Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2010

Publication Title

Surveillance & Society

Volume

8

Issue

3

First Page

323

Last Page

337

Keywords

Political Economy, Database Systems, Consumption, Surveillance, Harold Innis, Medium Theory

Abstract

This paper argues that the systemic nature of contemporary consumer surveillance undermines the most fundamental principle of free market economics: consumer sovereignty. Specifically, this paper argues that the rise of an ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’ society in conjunction with neoliberal capitalism has entrenched routine forms of surveillance within commercial strategies by employing networked databases as a primary medium for the articulation of consumer sovereignty (choice/demand). The communicative relationship between consumers and producers within the market involves effectively ‘listening’ (and then responding) to consumer needs and wants in a timely manner. Surveillance is therefore not only necessary for the operation of globalized consumer capitalism, it is also the primary means by which consumer communicate their sovereignty within the marketplace. By turning to the work of Harold Innis and the intellectual tradition known as medium theory, this paper will theorize how in linking the actions of individual consumers to the decision-making capacities of trans-national corporations (TNC), the prevalence of consumer databases violates the fundamental neutrality of the market, and thus sovereignty, of individual consumers. In sum, by treating the database as a distinct communication medium, this paper will highlight how the commercial mediation of identity under neoliberalism can conceal the potential for the uneven geographic development, the marginalization of ‘less valuable’ consumer segments, and the exploitation of individual vulnerabilities through behavior and profile modeling.

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