Who, or what, is insurtech personalizing?: persons, prices and the historical classifications of risk

McFall, Liz and Moor, Liz (2018). Who, or what, is insurtech personalizing?: persons, prices and the historical classifications of risk. Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 19(2) pp. 193–213.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/1600910x.2018.1503609


This paper examines the promises and pitfalls associated with Insurtech – the anticipated innovations in the insurance industry associated with social media marketing, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and more – and focuses in particular on the new methods of pricing and premium setting that are claimed to follow from the availability of self-tracking technologies and new volumes of customer data. Using the examples of telematics data in car insurance, efforts by health insurers to incentivize health behaviours (for example through the use of fitness trackers), and insurance companies’ own marketing materials, we assess the current state of play in the field of ‘personalized’ insurance pricing, pointing to obstacles as well as opportunities associated with its development. We then set these contemporary developments against a longer history of insurance pricing, understood as a history of arranging and classifying objects and persons for the purposes of calculating risk. We show that in its longer history, insurance reflected but also contributed to uncertainties about the distinction between persons and property. Drawing these two strands together, we conclude by assessing the implications of insurtech for future understandings of personhood. While there is scope for new categories of personhood to emerge, we show that there are also important continuities between past and present in terms of the challenge of bringing persons, parts of persons, material objects and pecuniary interests into successful alignment.

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