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The Customer Commodity: An Analysis of Power Relations Between Companies and Consumers

By Lucie Ferguson

From the Author: “The Customer Commodity” is the culmination of a semester’s study of commercial surveillance methods. After being given the broader topic of surveillance to research, I looked for a more specific theme that was applicable to my own life. What I found was that surveillance has a very relevant role as a tool of businesses worldwide. It is used to learn about consumers in order to target them more accurately and gain greater profit. This observation and analysis of our purchasing habits affects us as consumers every day, whether we realize it or not. Consequently, I felt the topic was useful not only in defining what surveillance is but in showing that it is germane to anyone who takes part in modern society. After describing and categorizing the surveillance methods of businesses, “The Customer Commodity” looks at the importance of being aware of your data footprint and how it is used.

From the Faculty Nominator: While Orwell’s concept of “Big Brother” has served as the dominant metaphor for modern surveillance and concentrated power, in reality contemporary surveillance practices are better represented by the idea of “little brothers” and distributed powers. We often bristle at what we perceive as the intrusiveness of big government into our daily lives, but it is really more characteristic of big business. Large trans-national corporations collect vast amounts of detailed information on populations, consumers, customers, and clients to better enhance their efficiency, predictability and control in a globally competitive market. The databases that result from such data entries become tremendously valuable in themselves and are sold or cross-matched through a dense network of information brokering. Those whose personal information is collected, most often without their knowledge, become abstracted data-subjects housed in impersonal grids of dataveillance. The portent of this exponentially increasing information trove is the subject of Lucie Ferguson’s sober study of the “consumer as commodity.”

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