Census working overtime

31 03 2011

My census was completed last weekend, as instructed. I didn’t put in “Jedi” as my religion, didn’t tell porkies about the number of people in the house and filled every field out to the best of my knowledge. Apart from being an employee of the people who wrote it, there’s simply no point in trying to be sneaky these days. All of our details are out there, on the web, and anyone who tries hard enough could find out a lot more about me than my ethnicity and how many dependant children I have.

The good people at Google and Facebook already know a great deal about everyone who’s ever used their products, and they use this mostly to try and sell us other people’s products. My Facebook account has personalised adverts at the side asking if I’d like to buy a set of drumsticks signed by Larry Mullen Junior, Gmail wants to know if I’d be interested in cheap Glasgow restaurants and a Google search asks me if I’d like to improve my prospects with Linux training. So why is the government spending a small fortune in this age of austerity asking how many rooms we have?

The official census website provides a somewhat unsatisfactory answer: because we need to count people. James Harkins’ article in the New Statesman is a little more thoughtful on the reasoning, but appears unconvinced by the arguments for having one and points out that the more the government wants to know about us, the more resistant we become to telling them.

Perhaps in ten years’ time when the next census is due, the supermarkets, social media providers, banks and search engines will simply gang up together and sell all of our information. Then statisticians, researchers, government agencies and planners could analyse it as they please. It would still be cheaper than the logistical nightmare of conducting a census and the results would be far more useful. So why not just do that?

I think this is the best answer for why we need a census; to stop the above scenario from every occurring. We need to do everything in our power to stop this, as if we allow our public spending plans to be controlled by private companies then we will be failing to meet the needs of society. I’m glad I filled out my census, it was a bit of a pain (especially as it kept crashing Firefox, grrr) but as least I helped keep my status up as a citizen and not just another customer.

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