QuantiCategorization

QuantiCategorization
Rosa Bonheur: The Horse Fair (1855)
"I am not now nor have I ever actually been my demographic."

To produce sketches for her mid-nineteenth century painting The Horse Fair, artist Rosa Bonheur sought and received permission to dress as a man while observing dealers selling horses at the horse market held on the Boulevard de l'Hôpital in Paris. She explained that when earlier sketching at a slaughterhouse, her appearance as a woman had complicated her ability to observe regular goings on, and so she wanted to dress in the iconic smock and britches favored by male painters of the period, for she considered herself first an artist. Whatever else she might have been ranked a distant second to her presence as an artist in that context. How others perceive us can deeply affect our ability to engage in whatever we do, so most of us take care to project a persona congruent with our intentions, lest we unduly complicate our own efforts.

We live in perhaps the most prejudicial time in the history of human existence.
In ancient times, people were born into their roles in life. Slaves were assumed to begat only slaves and royalty, only other royals, creating clear stratifications within society. Popular stories explained these differences as having been predetermined by The Gods: once a slave, always a slave. And even slaves bought into this explanation, self-identifying according to this inherently oppressive demographic. The inherent equality of all humans emerged much later as an assertion, only later proven by scientific enquiry, but scientific enquiry also encouraged even greater segregation, as observed differences became the basis for ever finer evaluation and, eventually, quantification to solidly "prove" their significance.

I felt genuine shock when, reading Jill Lapore's If/Then, that there had been no such thing as a Working-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male until the early nineteen-fifties, when the precursors to our current generation of data analyst simply made up this classification. Their methods for qualifying data, which they'd borrowed from the physical sciences, required differentiated data representing significant-enough seeming differences to allow analysis. While the physical sciences had long before, through painstaking analysis and experience, divided the world into general classes: Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, and ever finer categories, human behavior and, indeed, humans themselves had suffered through centuries of inconclusive attempts to cleanly classify the otherwise undifferentiated mass of humanity into distinct types. Stereotypes dominated these attempts, reinforcing deep myths and, ultimately, when melded into the practice of so-called science, produced results like eugenics. These early attempts to meaningfully classify types of humans suffered from deep prejudices and seemed to have most often produced ever deeper explanations for social imperatives, essentially extensions of the Ancient Greek notion of predestination. Overall, the resulting categories suffered from cultural tautology, they purported to prove the pre-existing obvious.

The first-generation of more modern analysts, the grandfathers of our current data analysts, armed with what they knew for certain were powerful physical science computational techniques, focused first upon consumers of different products: soap, tooth paste, and such. They intended to discover who bought what and why, and so began rather arbitrarily dividing this pie into apparent constituent parts: income, social class, gender, race, religion, political preferences. These classifications evolved into the demographic categories common today to every sort of questionnaire and form. The curious property these categories hold is not their fundamentally arbitrary history, but that we, you and I, quickly came to self-identify in perfect synchrony with them. In nineteen-fifty, nobody self-identified as a Working-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male. By nineteen-seventy, almost everyone so classified easily recognized and pigeonholed themselves.

Some might reasonably insist that this identification somehow proves that this classification was thereby proven correct, that there must have been something to it or else it would have never so universally caught on. I, personally, blame TV, which served to reinforce its advertisers' categorizations of the world in ways people couldn't seem to look away from. Twenty years of continual and growing reinforcement and anyone might find themselves deeply induced into any trance desired. Unsurprisingly, people began to actually behave according to their type, however it might have misrepresented their former convictions. We began behaving as if we were hypnotized chickens, and one might reasonably argue that we had become disturbingly similar to them. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Males actually overwhelmingly began preferring margarine to butter, an utterly absurd outcome. Media today seems much more cynical and savvy. Some, again, an at root imaginary category, firmly believe that only Fox News broadcasts the whole truth when even superficial analyses demonstrate that this is definitely not true. Fox cynically entrains their viewers. Cluck cluck. What media doesn't?

Many of us have lately been awakening to discover that we seem to have been categorized into demographics into which we clearly do not belong. I, for instance, find myself widely misclassified as a Boomer, simply because I was born in the nineteen-fifties, as if that category was somehow more distinctive than my hair color or shoe size. The demographic seems superficial because it is, ginned up to satisfy methods of analysis and not to determine the way anything really is. These techniques produce tenaciously self-referential results, they are because they say they are, amplified when I, or anybody, starts self-identifying. I'm actually more unlike almost anybody else in any cohort group. I was once labeled a hippy, too, though besides having long hair, I never actually knew what I was supposed to do with that label other than avoid people who believed that label definitive. I was just a guy, trying to understand who and what I might be, distracted by the demographic labels someone else had naively ascribed to me. I was never a hippy, though I admit to, for a time, superficially appearing like one.

Even such obvious categories as woman and man seem alarmingly superficial. The knowledge of which tooth paste Christians prefer seems about as useful as considering what all brown rocks have in common, but our modern analytical tools make such inquiries possible, even favored. Properly framed, such an analysis might well cynically convince most practicing Christians to "choose" Crest
®, just as if they weren't behaving like hypnotized chickens. I am not my demographic, and I deeply understand the differences between who and what I'm classified as and who and what I actually am. I, like you, have been convinced that the differences I exhibit between my demographic definition and my actual performance, might well be shortcomings, personal failings to live up to the promises imposed upon me. I struggle daily with these differences, though they distinguish me. I know, like Rosa Bonheur knew, that superficial prejudices tend to rule. I try to dress the part I'm so desperately trying to play, most days wondering just who's expectations I'm struggling to satisfy. Appearances never withstanding, I am not now nor have I ever actually been my demographic. You neither.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved








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