At the very centre of the book is the everyday business of the contemporary debt collection industry — a part of our contemporary societies and economies that many thousands of people have to deal with on a near daily basis and yet whose work is often hidden from view.
In opening up this domain for more public scrutiny, the book looks at its technologies, the forms of expertise it deploys, and how this has changed over the course of it becoming the industry that it is today. This includes examining how it uses, tests and experiments with different letter designs, what the exact role of the debt collections call centre worker is in contemporary collections companies, and the ways in which management of the debtors’ emotional states of debtors becomes so central to collections work. It also looks at the shift from door-to-door collections to work hugely dependent on successfully harnessing technologies of remote mass contact: the phone, the letter and, increasingly, text messages, emails, automated voice messages. Debt collection, it shows, is now about combining these various technologies in as profitable a way as possible, increasingly by combining its technologies with highly sophisticated data-driven forms of analysis. With this in place, it becomes possible to for collectors to identify with ever more precision exactly which debtors to collect from, when, and in what ways.
In the process the book explains the relationship between the various components of the collections industry and the relationship between the creditor and the collector. This is in part to highlight what I call the ‘distributed politics’ of credit, in which responsibility for the proliferation of credit and the actions of lenders and collectors should be seen as spread across a wide range of parties. For instance, as I argue in the conclusion,
it suits lenders that there is a collections industry that is perceived as distinct, even if they are themselves routinely engaged in the more forceful work of debt collection. The binary that is established between lender and collector allows creditors to remain isolated from the difficult questions that arise from the inevitably opaque and seemingly more murky work of getting defaulting debtors to repay what is owed.
The book, then, is not an expose of collections work but a careful analysis of the place it occupies in contemporary social life. That said, by looking at collections work it becomes possible to observe many of the most troubling aspects of the ways in which particular forms of credit have become tightly wrapped around so many aspects of our lives.