Living in the panopticon*

Recently some cards inviting me to become part of the latest massive customer loyalty scheme for one of Australia’s supermarket duopoly arrived in the post.

I will NOT be participating.

You might find this surprising, given that I live my life so openly on the web.  Anyone who reads my blog or is prepared to do even a minute or two of online searching (off you go, I’ll wait…) can find out any number of things about me.  I’m very open about my mental illness, my health issues, about the places I’ve lived.

I’ve had an online presence for a very long time.  And waaaaaay back at the very start of that, back when I had a livejournal account – gosh, way back before then, when I used to play on bulletin boards – alt.rec.whatevertheheckitwas, etc, multiple boards – I made the decision – a very consciously taken decision – to be ME online.  Not some hidden identity, not hiding behind aliases, but searchable me.

Does this mean I put my real life residential address in an easily findable format? Of course not.  Nor do I hand out my phone number.  I try to protect the people around me to a certain extent – Mr Beloved and my family are not so easily identified.

So why am I so annoyed about the arrival of these cards in the mail?  What could possibly be so upsetting about the WONDERFUL offer of “shop with us and we’ll reward you with these lovely, lovely things”?

Because you don’t get something for nothing, folks.  Every time you sign up for a store “loyalty” card, sure you might “get” some sort of discount.  The best ones might give you, say, 10% off the retail price on every purchase, and if you’re happy with that, great.  But what about the ones that make you wait until you have a certain number of their “points” until  you can claim a “reward”.  What’s happening there?

While you’re waiting for that great intangible, there’s a whole lot of data collection and processing going on.  Every time you buy something, there’s analysis about what else you bought at the same time.  How much you spent on a Tuesday.  Whether you bought more or less compared to last Tuesday.  Did you buy the product that was on the aisle end display, did you buy something that was advertised on the tv last night.   Did you pay cash, use your credit card,  ETFPOS, and did you take cash out with your purchase. It’s all there – whether the big store actually uses it or not is unknown.

The point is, they could.

If you let them.

*The panopticon was originally designed by Jeremy Bentham as a structure where inmates of an institution couldn’t tell if they were being observed or not. (Creepy, huh?)  You might think I’m paranoid.  I am at least aware of being (potentially) “observed” (by camera or by data) at all times,  given my local town’s “city safe” camera surveillance system, various store security cameras, and my willing participation in some store loyalty card programs.

Do you know who’s watching YOU?


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