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Quantifying Responsibility

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Thursday, Oct 27, 2011

Today’s WSJ has a story by Scott Thurm about how Fair Isaac and the other surveillance companies that track people’s financial activity and collects data to create credit scores are hoping to expand its line and generate scores that can codify other behaviors. They want to posit scores that, for example, let doctors know a patient’s likelihood to obey prescriptions or let marketers know how likely one is to spend rather than save.


Many scores are built on the premise that people who pay their bills on time are likely to be accountable in other ways. “There’s a ‘responsibility’ thought lurking inside” many measures, said [Fair Isaac CEO] Mr. Greene…. Scoring-company executives say their products are fairer and more consistent than the subjective judgments they often replace. Though they concede their formulas aren’t perfect, they say credit-based scores increase economic efficiency, improving people’s access to loans and cheaper insurance.


The “premise” behind these scores need not be proved if it is economically efficient enough—such efficiency serves as a kind of proof of its own. If something generates more commerce, circulates ands valorizes more capital, then it works; it is true. And the market outcomes are presumably superior because they are not “subjective.” Whether the scores accurately depict people’s actual behavior isn’t really the point. It’s not even relevant as long as profit margins are sustained.


Also, fairness in this context is apparently a mere matter of objectivity—it appears more “fair” when a bank denies credit on the basis of one of these mystified scores rather than on the basis of the judgment of one of its employees empowered to make such decisions. Though the scores bear only a probabilistic relation at best to people’s actual character, they seem like neutral renderings of social facts. They reify social relations into a number that can be hung around an individual’s neck as if he earned it all by himself. That is what the Fair Isaac CEO is talking about when he says responsibility “lurks” inside his numbers. The numbers permit a transfer of responsibility in the shady attempt to quantify it in the abstract. The whole point of these scores is to allow companies to exercise various price-discrimination schemes and figure out how to extract the most profit from customers by adjusting how they are treated. This discrimination becomes the consumer’s responsibility. It’s one of many subtle ways capitalism has developed to make class seem like your own fault.

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