Social sorting is big business. Bosses and bankers crave “predictive analytics:” ways of deciding who will be the best worker, borrower, or customer. Our economy is less likely to reward someone who “builds a better mousetrap” than it is to fund a startup which will identify those most likely to buy a mousetrap. The critical resource here is data, the fossil fuel of the digital economy. Privacy advocates are digital environmentalists, worried that rapid exploitation of data either violates moral principles or sets in motion destructive processes we only vaguely understand now.*
Start-up fever fuels these concerns as new services debut and others grow in importance. For example, a leader at Lenddo, “the first credit scoring service that uses your online social network to assess credit,” has called for “thousands of engineers [to work] to assess creditworthiness.” We all know how well the “quants” have run Wall Street—but maybe this time will be different. His company aims to mine data derived from digital monitoring of relationships. ITWorld headlined the development: “How Facebook Can Hurt Your Credit Rating”–“It’s time to ditch those deadbeat friends.” It also brought up the disturbing prospect of redlined portions of the “social graph.”
There’s a lot of value in such “news you can use” reporting. However, I think it misses some problematic aspects of a pervasively evaluated and scored digital world. Big data’s fans will always counter that, for every person hurt by surveillance, there’s someone else who is helped by it. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, whether the game of reputation-building is truly zero-sum, and the far more important question of whether these judgments are fair. The data-meisters’ analytics deserve scrutiny on other grounds.