Knowing, Judging, Calculating: Consumer Credit Surveillance and the Infrastructure of Prediction
During the late twentieth century, computerized credit scoring emerged as a key technology for sorting American consumers into categories of risk and pricing their value. These systems opened the door to new forms of statistical classification and prefigured the growth of contemporary algorithmic society. Though computing and telecommunication technologies facilitated the development of automated scoring systems, they did not appear in a vacuum. They were built upon well-established surveillance infrastructures. Long before databases or algorithms, American consumers were already identified, tracked, and evaluated by a national network of consumer credit bureaus. These paper bureaucracies amassed huge archives of personal information, including the details of one’s home life, reputation, and morality. The history of this consumer credit surveillance infrastructure, which dates to the 1870s, reveals the conceptual roots and calculating logic of twenty-first-century surveillance capitalism.
Josh Lauer is an associate professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire. His research, which addresses the history of communication technology, surveillance, and financial culture, has appeared in Technology & Culture, New Media & Society, Enterprise & Society, and several edited collections, including The Rise of Marketing and Market Research (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and The Emergence of Routines (Oxford, 2017). He is the author of Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America (Columbia, 2017).