Cathy O’Neil: Short Your Kids, Go Long Your Neighbor: Betting on People Is Coming Soon

By Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist. Cross posted from mathbabe

Yet another aspect of Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian fiction novel Super Sad True Love Story is coming true for reals this week.

Besides anticipating Occupy Wall Street, as well as Bloomberg’s sweep of Zuccotti Park (although getting it wrong on how utterly successful such sweeping would be), Shteyngart proposed the idea of instant, real-time and broadcast credit ratings.

Anyone walking around the streets of New York, as they’d pass a certain type of telephone pole – the kind that identifies you via your cell phone and communicates with data warehousing services and databases – would have their credit rating flashed onto a screen. If you went to a party, depending on how you impressed the other party go-ers, your score could plummet or rise in real time, and everyone would be able to keep track and treat you accordingly.

I mean, there were other things about the novel too, but as a data person these details certainly stuck with me since they are both extremely gross and utterly plausible.

And why do I say they are coming true now? I base my claim on two news stories I’ve been sent by my various blog readers recently.

[Aside: if you read my blog and find an awesome article that you want to send me, by all means do! My email address is available on my “About” page.]

First, coming via Suresh and Marcos, we learn that data broker Acxiom is letting people see their warehoused data. A few caveats, bien sûr:

1. You get to see your own profile, here, starting in 2 days, but only your own.
2. And actually, you only get to see some of your data. So they won’t tell you if you’re a suspected gambling addict, for example. It’s a curated view, and they want your help curating it more. You know, for your own good.
3. And they’re doing it so that people have clarity on their business.
4. Haha! Just kidding. They’re doing it because they’re trying to avoid regulations and they feel like this gesture of transparency might make people less suspicious of them.
5. And they’re counting on people’s laziness. They’re allowing people to opt out, but of course the people who should opt out would likely never even know about that possibility.
6. Just keep in mind that, as an individual, you won’t know what they really think they know about you, but as a corporation you can buy complete information about anyone who hasn’t opted out.

In any case those credit scores that Shteyngart talks about are already happening. The only issue is who gets flashed those numbers and when. Instead of the answers being “anyone walking down the street” and “when you walk by a pole” it’s “any corporation on the interweb” and “whenever you browse”.

After all, why would they give something away for free? Where’s the profit in showing the credit scores of anyone to everyone? Hmmmm….

That brings me to my second news story of the morning coming to me via Constantine, namely this TechCrunch story which explains how a startup called Fantex is planning to allow individuals to invest in celebrity athletes’ stocks. Yes, you too can own a tiny little piece of someone famous, for a price. From the article:

People can then buy shares of that player’s brand, like a stock, in the Fantex-consumer market. Presumably, if San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis has a monster year and looks like he’s going to get a bigger endorsement deal or a larger contract in a few years, his stock would rise and a fan could sell their Davis stock and cash out with a real, monetary profit. People would own tracking or targeted stocks in Fantex that would depend on the specific brand that they choose; these stocks would then rise and fall based on their own performance, not on the overall performance of Fantex.

Let’s put these two things together. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to acknowledge a reason for everyone to know everyone else’s credit score! Namely, we can can bet on each other’s futures!

I can’t think of any set-up more exhilarating to the community of hedge fund assholes than a huge, new open market – containing profit potentials for every single citizen of earth – where you get to make money when someone goes to the wrong college, or when someone enters into an unfortunate marriage and needs a divorce, or when someone gets predictably sick. An orgy in the exact center of tech and finance.

Are you with me peoples?!

I don’t know what your Labor Day plans are, but I’m getting ready my list of people to short in this spanking new market.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Credit markets, Guest Post, Ridiculously obvious scams on by .

About David Dayen

David is a contributing writer to He has been writing about politics since 2004. He spent three years writing for the FireDogLake News Desk; he’s also written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, The Washington Monthly, Alternet, Democracy Journal and Pacific Standard, as well as multiple well-trafficked progressive blogs and websites. His has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio and Air America Radio. He has contributed to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and another on the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Prior to writing about politics he worked for two decades as a television producer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.


  1. YankeeFrank

    The only reason I think this people market wouldn’t thrive is that its premised on the notion that we petty grunts are worth “investing” in the first place. Most of us would only be interested in investing in the “successes” which is why this Fantex thing will probably take off.

    Another reason is that anyone with any sense knows that the majority of us are on a downward spiral with little in the way of opportunity or progress in our futures. Investing in the bulk of the US citizenry is a losing proposition in our brave neoliberal world. On the other hand, shorting us could be hugely lucrative…

  2. Tim Mason

    Instant credit notification has been a constant theme in sci-fi for decades. Pohl and Kornbluth ‘The Space Merchants’, written in 1952, which now seems one of the most devastatingly accurate prophecies since Cassandra warned of the destruction of Troy, is one excellent example.

  3. Foppe

    I am reminded of this product, which already exists:

    With its new Kompass Life III fund, Deutsche Bank has come up with something truly innovative: “certificates” based on medical data which allow the investor to guess when the “Reference Individual” (old Americans between the ages of 70 and 90) will die. Here is a quick translation from a description of the fund in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

    The difference to the other products in the secondary market is that in this case Deutsche Bank doesn’t purchase life insurance policies, but rather creates certificates in which the investors in “db Kompass Life 3” invest. According to the prospectus, the certificates are based on a portfolio of 500 Americans between the ages of 70 and 90. Their health information is analyzed by two external medical experts before being included in the portfolio.)

    Deutsche Bank pockets a handsome “placement fee” for putting investors in the fund.

    Why would one invest in such a vehicle? A simple explanation:The quicker the “reference individuals” die, the greater the return to the investor. If, God forbid, they outlive the estimates of the medical experts then Deutsche Bank wins big. Guess who stands to make the big money here?

  4. NotSoSure

    A couple of years ago I was working on a project that had run VERY late when a coworker made a suggestion that employees should be allowed to “short” projects and benefit from it. Not sure if he was joking.

  5. vlade

    I wonder whether this will spur on a niche market where for a payment they will opt-out for you from anywhere/everywhere they know of (i.e. you’ll pay for your privacy).

    1. Yves Smith

      No, that was for current and future revenues of 25 albums that Bowie had already created. I don’t see how you can create “shares” in someone ex slavery. I’m assuming that the proposal is to create some sort of celebrity Intrade.

  6. Bridget

    Many thanks for the link. I plan to opt out as soon as the site is up and running tomorrow. I find interminable wait time hell to be vastly preferable to instant attentive customer service hell.

  7. kevinearick

    Labor Day: Parade of Lies

    In an artificial world of liars competing for corporate welfare, you cannot expect the feedback required to prosper. What you may expect is doors leading to doors leading to artificial scarcity, instead of readily available natural wealth. Maintain your distance accordingly. Keep your eye on labor/rent, net of all the misdirection, over time.

    As a laborer, you have three primary concerns, marrying someone that loves you enough to make honest mistakes, finding a decent boss that serves the public purpose, and working with a landlord capable of discounting the empire on your behalf, all of whom must understand the importance of the 4.0 ratio, to create economic profit amidst all the economic loss-leaders sure to surround you.

    Capital is legacy labor, generations removed, employing the middle class against new labor, to ensure no change in motion, with economic activity accounting, GDP, to simulate a feedback signal, while new family formation, a clean break (timed open(s)), employs nature as the feedback signal, advancing the hour clock and resetting the second clock.

    Because the middle class is geared to capital’s money machine, it knows little to nothing relative to nature. It knows what it is paid to know, how to keep busy producing nothing net of its own existence. Now, the middle class is down to four central bankers who have convinced their bosses that they can maintain the ponzi, making Putin, a communist with incrementally better listening skills, look like a rocket scientist.

    The police enter, bring their gangs, make the public aware of gangs, and the police state grows, on majority vote. The only possible result is unreasonable search and seizure, by officers of the Court. They don’t break up your economy and seize your assets by accident, and neither should you be prepared by accident. When you see homeland security come into a community with no crime it’s time to move, for your sake as well as others’. Fighting stupid with stupid does not reduce stupid.

    The key to labor is economic mobility, the ability to adapt and prosper on your own time. Beyond a small subset of independent farmers capable of acting as capital, middle class, or labor to manage city development on the margin, which are nevertheless anchored in place, very few have the necessary mobility to initiate the necessary reaction, distribution and mobilization, any time and any where.

    Ownership is a self-evident myth. The land always reverts to the best stewards, from the perspective of the planet, in quantum leaps. We all rent our time here. Chasing ownership simply feeds the beast of stupidity, locking all participants into the past with physical and psychological sunk costs. The answer to extortion is not extortion.

    The majority is bred incapable of love, so ‘naturally’ (normally) it clamors for equal entitlement to the benefits of marriage without the responsibility, through the mechanism of Family Law, and it fails every time. For them, children are a just another means to a material end, and your children are the one and only means to the future. The best move in the game is not to play.

    Socialism, corporate profit at individual cost, doesn’t work anywhere in nature. If you don’t love children, your best economic outcome rests in not having any and leaving others to their parents. If you open a door for others to enter your marriage, you get what you get, bankruptcy. Printing money only serves to delay recognition until the majority goes over the cliff, not the outcome.

    Once easily exploitable resources, the least common denominator, pass their zenith, the empire pyramid of artificial crises erupts into war and the facade of civility covering tyranny of efficiency in each social event horizon recedes, re-enforcing the reaction. And it is exactly this normalized cost hidden by bred-in efficiency, the false assumptions controlling behavior, that locks participants into increasing pressure and decreasing volume, prisoners dilemma.

    If you want to replace parents with central bankers, go right ahead into the casino, but don’t expect those capable of providing a foundation for then tax base, labor, to support your position. The parade always ends where it began; every empire does, busy work. Play with your children, instead of FIRE, and you will always be ahead of the game.

    Don’t rebel against invasion of privacy; give the empire what it wants until you don’t. If you have a couple, both making $15/hr and both working 24 hrs/wk, to supply a market of $70/mo rent and primary demand throughout the economy – clothes, appliances, autos, homes, etc, why do you suppose this economy isn’t turning over and demand is collapsing, into itself?

    Planning a ponzi for retirement never ends well. Automation is now replacing the public, private and non-profit corporation. You may want to learn to adapt, ahead of the curve, with a community built for the purpose. If you do not manage the mirror between your public profile and your private potential, you have only yourself to blame. The whole point of peer pressure is to eliminate your potential. Labor does not parade itself for public consumption.

    A vortex has waves of incidence, and if you have enough dimensions you don’t have to go anywhere to see whatever you want to see.

  8. Jeremy Grimm

    Some firms are supposedly discriminating against applicants that don’t keep a Facebook page, based on the assumption (?) that the applicant must have something to hide. I wonder whether opting out of Acxion or a similar service couldn’t hold its own dangers. Hasn’t the DOJ started to assume some guilt if someone refuses to answer questions asserting their right to remain silent without specifically invoking the 5th Amendment? Also — it would be nice to know how to ‘game’ these mass data collection ‘tools’.

    Will the SEC be carefully monitoring everyone (using NSA data perhaps) to look for insider trading? With a futures market in place your boss could sell you short a month or so before he refuses your promotion and gives you a very little raise, or before he lays you off.

Comments are closed.