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Habitual Algorithms: Life Insurance and the Cultural Lives of Predictive Analytics

Presented by Tamara Kneese, assistant professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco. Hosted by STS/CSIS.

May 31, 2017
from 12:00 PM to 02:00 PM

1246 SS&H (STS/CSIS Room)

As usual, we will pre-circulate a text which will be briefly introduced at the start of the session. The introduction will be followed by an hour or so of lively discussion about the text, so please come having read the paper in advance. Food and refreshments will be provided!

If you are interested in attending, please RSVP using the google form below. We will send a copy of the text at the end of this week to those who register!




This paper explores the historical underpinnings of contemporary algorithmic insurance practices. Based on archival research about the Life Extension Institute, an organization founded in 1913 to improve American health, I argue that the connections between life insurance, labor, and personhood might help to contextualize the expansion of predictive analytics into everyday life. In this paper, my aim is to find the points of intersection between 19th and 20th century cultural histories surrounding insurance, eugenics, and productivity and the effects of predictive analytics on insurance practices today. Who is worthy of protection, and why? How is this value determined? Predictive analytics determine the speculative value of human life, as health is directly connected to notions of productivity and personhood. While actuarial tables have been central to insurance practices since at least the 19th century, algorithms provide novel ways of modeling based on individual habits and lifestyle metrics. Rather than simply collecting information on individuals, life insurance companies seek to minimize risk and maximize profit by subtly shaping embodied behaviors. Like mortality tables and calculations of risk in the 19th and 20th centuries, 21st century predictive analytics in life insurance have the same potential to exacerbate existing inequalities. Numerical data have material effects. The Life Extension Institute thus prefigures contemporary concerns about surveillance, discrimination, and employers’ power over workers. 


Dr. Tamara Kneese is a feminist STS, media studies, and communication scholar who writes about the affective contours of digital posterity. She is currently a Lecturer in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at UC Davis and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. She holds a PhD in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU, an MA in Social Sciences and Anthropology from the University of Chicago, and a BA in Anthropology from Kenyon College. Her work has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Data & Society Research Institute, the Intel Science & Technology Center for Social Computing, and the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.