April 12, 2019

Safeguarding trust

When I first went to college, my mother, who worked for a bank, set me up with a credit card. This was not so I could spend money at my own discretion — I didn’t get to carry the card with me. It was so I could establish good credit and start working on my FICO score. Whenever I would come home from school, she would tell me to use the card to buy a few things — gas, maybe some clothes (there weren’t as many places that accepted credit cards back then) — and when the bill would come, she would pay it off. This routine proved to banks that I was diligent and responsible.

It seemed weird to me then that it was better for your credibility to systematically put yourself into debt rather than simply demonstrate that you had cash on hand. I naively thought that “good credit” meant being able to pay debt off, or even better, not needing to be in debt in the first place. But a credit score doesn’t measure your ability to avoid debt. It measures your willingness to go into debt.

This is partly because lenders prefer borrowers who can dependably pay off the interest but not the principal. However, it also has to do with the effects of indebtedness on an individual’s subjectivity. Entering into a chronic state of debt means orienting oneself, as if voluntarily, to a life principally devoted to servicing it. What a credit score screens for is a willingness to adopt this subjectivity, to always be thinking about what you owe and what you are going to do about it. As Maurizio Lazzarato describes in The Making of the Indebted Man, “The power of debt is described as if it were exercised neither through repression nor through ideology. The debtor is ‘free,’ but his actions, his behavior, are confined to the limits defined by the debt he has entered into … You are free insofar as you assume the way of life (consumption, work, public spending, taxes, etc.) compatible with reimbursement.” Lazzarato adds that “the techniques used to condition individuals to live with debt begin very early on, even before entry on the job market.” Of course, student debt (and later, mortgage debt) is one of those techniques, but so is the credit score itself. The score condenses an entire lifestyle, a morality rooted in a set of commercially oriented values. When I played the game with my first credit card, I made it clear that I was ready and willing to be scored, that I wanted someone to keep score for me.

Building a credit score implies a program of character building. For Lazzarato, “debt … implies the molding and control of subjectivity such that ‘labor’ becomes indistinguishable from ‘work on the self.’” In other words, debt posits that you should live as if there were no other point to life than to prove what you are worth. Student debt suggests an education in repaying that debt first, and only secondarily the specific set of skills tailored toward that repayment. The ubiquity of credit scoring not only puts pressure on people to go into actual debt (why I had a Potemkin credit card when I was 18), but it also makes debt superfluous to the project of making us into “the indebted.” Being scored is tantamount to already being in debt, given the pressure it imposes to live in specific ways.

Having a self conditioned by the logic of debt might seem like it would be about learning how to save, how to be efficient. But is not a matter of frugality but desire. Such a self wants to be in debt, because debt allows one to access the status signifiers that open up certain opportunities and social circles. Going into debt signals de facto assent of this hierarchy of values; it shows that you desperately want what you are supposed to want, which is ultimately to your credit.

More than that, being in debt plugs you in to the constitutive processes of social evaluation. It puts you in the position of being assessed as creditable. This allows indebtedness to function as a form of inclusion. It demonstrates the willingness to cooperate, to commit one’s own life to building a future that reproduces the terms and conditions of the loan, the power relations that inhere there. Indebtedness in good standing shows one’s commitment to playing by the rules of continued employability and continued respect for property, over protracted periods of time. It implies that one will bear just enough risk so that one can’t do anything truly risky.

Debt is a shorthand way of describing any relation in which one is judged as worthy or not. It implies its opposite — “social credit,” a phrase which announces that every individual is always already indebted to society, to the set of norms established in the means of accounting for that “credit.” In an essay for the Boston Review Frank Pasquale notes that China’s emerging social credit system “could easily end up serving as a quant-driven power grab, enabling its authors to assert authority over vast swathes of social life in a way they could never achieve via legislation.” That is, it could compel obedience panoptically. Since no one knows exactly what data is being collected and how it feeds into their credit score, everyone must be diligent to the level of paranoia about every possible type of behavior that could be captured. It can generalize “debt,” understood as the condition of having to earn access to social goods.

Lazzarato’s point is that such a feeling of indebtedeness doesn’t merely constrict what one might do; it constitutes what one is, or how one is capable of thinking of oneself. Debt offers a frame of reference for what your behavior means, and what you can aspire to, how you can become a “good person.” Complicity is thus built in at the level of social recognition — approval comes at the cost of being scored and scoring others in turn, according to these generalized and centralized formal systems administered by outside authorities. As Pasquale puts it, “you can motivate people not only to rate and rank one another, but also to positively enjoy the power and responsibility that rating (and being rated) entails.”

The more debt is understood expansively, as constitutive of subjectivity, the more it makes sense to assert that “all data is credit data,” as the financial startup ZestFinance, described in this Los Angeles Times article, does. It becomes a self-reinforcing proposition: the more debt informs life, the more life informs credit. The article notes that “a growing number of lenders and credit-scoring firms” are starting to “use more and more data — much of it unrelated to money — to augment traditional underwriting practices.” But the whole point of these companies is to destroy the basis for determining which data is “related to money” and which isn’t. That line is deliberately blurred, so that borrowers as a group can be placed in the position of Chinese citizens under the social credit system, unsure of what counts and what doesn’t and incentivized to overshoot the mark.

For these financial companies, a correlation can be computed between all past propensities supposedly captured in data and all future probabilities, including debt repayment.  The more behavioral data that can be run through that calculation process, the stronger the subjectivity of indebtedness can be imposed on people and experienced by them — they will have more and more of sense that everything is being factored it, that everything they do “matters.” That life is, in that sense, meaningful. This is how debt becomes a “way of life.”

This sense of life’s “meaning” is not limited to relations between people and banks. The more our credit scores are entangled in each other’s behavior and associated with it, the more we become collectively subject to the correlations posited by the system. All data can be seen as credit data because all social interactions can increasingly be understood as debtor-creditor relations, requiring the specific forms of “trust” and “identity” that indebtedness implies — the forms elicited by Uber and Airbnb and so on. Implicit in those platforms’ business models is the blanketing of society with distrust, and reciprocal formal reputation assessment as the means for addressing it. How many stars do you have? What sort of friends and places do you feature in your Instagram? Basically, all the data that is now credit data can play into this, conditioning how you behave not only when you want to enter into a particular economic exchange but at all times (because everything is an economic exchange at some level, given the appropriate means of capturing the value). It’s like the Airbnb host has their hidden cameras trained on you even when you are not on their property.

If the rise of “sharing economy” platforms has injected forms of interpersonal credit scoring into more of everyday life, the embedding of sensors and surveillance into everyday objects (the “internet of things,” the proliferation of Alexa-like devices, etc.) extends that protocol further. These introduce levels of permissioning into the infrastructure of social life, so that you have to be a certain kind of person before you can get basic things to work. This washroom is for influencers only, no one with fewer than 10,000 followers allowed.

So having a credit score functions as a form of social inclusion in this economic sense; it is inclusion premised on conceding that the social is just a market. Being scored means that one is on the “identity grid,” to borrow a term from a Mastercard “vision paper” with the deeply ironic title of “Restoring Trust in the Digital World.” The paper about what the financial services industry hopes the future of digital identity will be (described by Felix Salmon here as the “privatization of identity”). In that document, Mastercard promises a future of “frictionless” access based on a ubiquitous system of identity verification operating in the background.

Next to this picture of a man holding another man over a cliff — maybe helping him up, maybe dangling him like a loan shark losing his patience — reads this text:

Imagine a world where a person’s identity and the devices operating on their behalf can be verified immediately, safely, and securely, across multiple touchpoints and in both the digital and the physical world; where access is gained without passwords and data is exchanged only with consent; as simple as saying: “Hi, this is me.” This is the future we are making possible. 

This is supposed be convenient and wonderful for consumers, but the same biometrically based frictionless expediency is a very opaque and friction-full process of frustration and anxiety for those it excludes or automatically prohibits without clear explanation or due process. It allows for what Chris Gilliard describes here as “friction-free racism.” Checks on identity can come from anywhere in this mesh of “touchpoints,” for purposes that are never disclosed. This doesn’t make for a world “where trust can be easily established” but a world where trust is never actually granted, where it is structurally prohibited from existing. Imagine a world where a person is being rated and scored constantly, invisibly, where one’s credibility is continually being assessed and modulated, where all behavior is primarily oriented toward that “frictionless” process. A system that intends to make permissioning disappear also makes it omnipresent.

Rather than free people from the hassle of identity, it generalizes it to an entire mode of being. Life is nothing but a series of confrontations with technology attempting to validate you and revalidate you on an ongoing real-time basis. Hence this portrait of the citizen of the future:

A child born today will not have a bank card, hold a passport, or carry cash. Her  first payment device might be her phone, a watch, or an item of clothing. Her signature might be a thumbprint, face scan, or her voice. Ultimately, her ID will be herself.

That sounds great: The chance to live your live as a piece of identification. She will get to live her entire life aspiring to be accepted as proof of herself. Not only her behavior but her entire body can be placed under continual suspicion. “Restoring trust in the digital world,” indeed. It sounds like the use of digital means to extend processes of racialization and making people’s bodies speak to their social footing.

Social credit systems tend toward the elimination of the possibility of ever being creditable. Trust is always on the brink of being rescinded; one must always behave with a degree of calculation that makes social behavior not generous or moral but tactical. As Pasquale notes, “quantitative governance of culture is a paradox: the very effort to articulate the precise value of manners and emotions threatens to unravel them entirely, as spontaneous affections and interactions are instrumentalized into points.” Being on the “identity grid” means assenting to being that kind of person, for whom every last act of kindness or understanding requires an incentive and an accounting. In the future we might live our lives as human IDs, but we won’t understand ourselves without a scoreboard.