From Mass to Mess

In 1978 the Claritas corporation introduced a market segmentation index called PRIZM that breaks down the country’s population into a total of now 66 codified character types. These types, given names like “Young Digerati” and “City Roots,” articulate the nation’s population as a collection of target demographics broken down by age, race, purchasing habits, media preferences, and income level all located in spatial concentrations pegged to zip codes.

While Claritas was hard at work segmenting the population, credit card companies, consumer products manufacturers, and service industries began teaching consumers on an individual basis to demand customization on an increasingly personal level. From venti-soy-nonfat-double pump lattes to blue iMacs, choice is offered as market option but increasingly mobilized also as part of our individual identity.

Whereas the immediate post-WWII market was dominated by relatively few corporations, thanks to the deregulation of key industries the competitive landscape is increasingly dense. Instead of accepting the inward flow of customers, contemporary companies must now actively seek out consumers. In something resembling an autocatalytic loop, the targeting of consumers has slowly allowed individuals to seek increasingly minute commercial differentiation, which eventually demands more refined targeting, which starts the loop all over again.

Through this reciprocal mechanism the broad concerns of the population are specialized and compartmentalized, making an understanding of national unity on a basic level more and more difficult. Combined with advanced production capacity and expanded media markets, the PRIZM system has transformed “we the people” into “we the peoples” - no longer will a catchall collector suffice in a nation of consumers that stand divided.

Photograph by Arthur Mole of 30,000 soldiers standing in formation.

As the early euphoria of nation building now wears off (after all, Hawaii was added to the union just a generation ago) the unifying power of abstract ideals is being put to the test by a nation of citizens which, from the start, have prided themselves on individuality. While participation in the project of the United States may still hold sway with some people, the definition of this project is slippery, as witnessed most recently by the great divide caused by the current presidency. The personalized consumer attention described above serves to further complicate regional and cultural differences in an already vast country by teaching the individual that choice, not compromise, is the primary act. Rather than receiving the masses which may be differentiated upon closer inspection, a public architecture that is specific to the United States accepts mess: the multiple, conflicted and conflicting citizenry of individuals from which it must seek to coalesce temporary forms of coherence.