Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America

Josh Lauer. Columbia Univ., $35 (352p) ISBN 978-0-231-16808-3
Mass surveillance of the American public has grown in technological sophistication and scope, but it isn’t a new phenomenon, and it’s being driven by capitalist enterprise rather than the government, argues Lauer, a professor of media studies, in this fascinating study of the credit-rating industry’s central role in creating the “modern surveillance society.” The story reaches back to the “market revolution” of the mid-19th century, when entrepreneur Lewis Tappan, spurred by the financial panic of 1837, successfully launched the first credit-reporting enterprise. Lauer follows this history forward through major developments, including the creation of easy consumer credit, the rise of credit scoring, and the onset of big data. Throughout, he carefully maps the necessity for evaluating creditworthiness in an impersonal modern market (and for carefully modulating “the treadmill of debt” in a debt-strapped U.S.) onto cultural shifts—not least the construction of “financial identity” as a facet of a person’s full identity, and even a way of gauging a person’s moral worth. This story of mass surveillance is unavoidably lopsided, Lauer acknowledges, since the perspectives of consumers (especially before the dawn of consumer advocacy) remain largely out of reach of the historian. Nevertheless, Lauer’s top-down economic history is a thorough, enlightening, and long-overdue contribution to the field. (July)
Reviewed on: 05/15/2017
Release date: 07/01/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 352 pages - 978-0-231-54462-7
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