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Profiling Machines

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Profiling Machines

Mapping the Personal Information Economy

MIT Press,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Find out what private data marketers collect about you, and how, and why, and what you can do about it (not much).

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Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


Greg Elmer pulls the veil off the universal practice of consumer profiling and data-collection, and demonstrates its deep societal influence. Daily, when you swipe a credit card or buy a magazine or go online, your personal habits are monitored – and someone will use that information to make a buck. Both in terms of its topic and its treatment, this book should be too theoretical to hold much interest for the business public. Who cares about communications theory as applied to the continual mapping of personal consumer information? However, you can’t push this into a dusty corner, because the subtle cultural effect of the increasingly close monitoring and data mining of consumer behavior is too powerful to overlook. While the book has a slightly dry, academic direction, getAbstract still strongly recommends it to those who are curious whether the juggernaut economic machine will steamroll over the privacy rights of those who use and feed it.


Oh (Big) Brother!

Consumers are increasingly asked their opinion on every imaginable question. Consumer feedback technologies are everywhere. Yet few analyze the impact of consumer feedback on the culture. Sweepstakes, entry forms, online enrollment forms, discount cards with bar codes, consumer surveys, rebate forms, contest entries, online memberships, all these and more demonstrate the creative, continual push toward finding out exactly what consumers think. Still, scant literature exists on the impact of consumer feedback technologies. The term ’surveillance’ hardly seems adequate to describe the interactive technologies that systematically ask consumers to reveal their opinions and their personal information.


Collecting consumer profiles requires getting people to divulge personal information. These profiles depict consumer likes, dislikes and tendencies. In many cases, gathering this information is automated within the general consumer activities of purchasing goods, commissioning services or consuming media. Profiling provokes several serious social concerns. Consumer information can be stolen and used in identify theft. People may be offered...

About the Author

Greg Elmer is an associate professor in the Department of Communications at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. He is editor of Critical Perspectives on the Internet and co-editor of the journal Space and Culture.

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