I was visiting Lehigh University not long ago and bought my wife a little something while I was there. It wasn’t elaborate, just a little necklace to surprise her when I got back. But that evening, back at my hotel, just before leaving for my final dinner, I got a phone call from home: my wife was wanting to confirm whether I’d made a purchase earlier that day, since the service our credit union uses had contacted her about an unusual purchase.
She knew the amount because they knew the amount and they knew the amount because I’d never before spend X number of dollars in Bethlehem PA. That’s why the automated fraud protection levers were pulled and my card was yanked.
So much for the surprise.
I’ve written here before on credit card fraud, but what occurred to me now was the curious manner in which one way that we talk about the past pretty obviously conflicted with how social life actually takes place, in the unpredictable present.
For we commonly think of the past as a settled accumulation that bears down on the present — which is pretty much how the fraud detection system works: it flags purchases that are out of the ordinary based on your previous buying habits. But what’s curious here is the manner in which past happenstance becomes a norm that is then used to judge the no less uncertain future; for, much like what are now wholly unforeseen future purchases, many of my past expenditures were themselves, at the time, largely unpredictable — sure, many things that we buy (like that cup of coffee at the same shop each morning) comprise a pretty reliable pattern (thus amazon.com and Netflix feel pretty confident about their suggestons for us), but plenty do not. Was my flight canceled due to a breakdown and might I need a room in an expensive hotel near the airport in some city I’d never been to before? Sure, that happens to people every day, making it entirely ordinary, but yet it’s probably flagged as “out of the ordinary,” perhaps stranding anyone whose not listed their cell phone with those fraud protection services. But once that purchase is made, no matter how much it might have deviated from whatever your already established patterns were at the time, it now becomes part of a new, always emerging and always adjusted normative pattern, one that continually rolls forward, thereby turning the inevitably contingent present into what we portray (to our detriment, mind you, when we’re trying to check into that airport hotel at the last minute) as an authoritative, predictive past, one that’s used to make sense of activity in the moments yet to come.
But the problem here is the collision between contingency and necessity, for compiling a series of could-have-been-otherwise moments together and then taking their average or using them to predict the future is — like weather forecasts — bound to fail, for sooner or later you happen to end up in, of all places, Bethlehem PA and, on the spur of the moment, decide to go into a store to buy a necklace for your wife.
Despite the old saying, we are not creatures of habit for, pardon my French, shit happens, everyday, all day.
So who could’ve seen that purchase coming? Certainly not me — and I’m the one who bought it. For until I saw that particular necklace I wasn’t sure I was even getting anything in that store. And certainly not my bank — that’s why they blocked my card and called my wife. My crime? I, in the present, had deviated from what they’ve decided was the average and thus normative me in the past. But with the right word from me, the deviation was judged acceptable, my past average was recalculated, and my future selves will likely now have free reign in the various jewelry shops in downtown Bethlehem. (Allentown purchases are probably another matter entirely.)
You’re welcome, Russells-yet-to-come, for my transgressions now, against the habits of past selves, makes possible the yet-to-be-realized freedoms you’ll one day enjoy.
Sure, there were a variety of other things that frustrated me about this episode, e.g., that I now have to keep Big Banker informed of my every movement so that they don’t block my card just because I I did something they think I wouldn’t do or their attempts to persuade me, when I went to talk with them about this incident, that they do this for my own good when we both know that they’re trying to keep their premiums down on their credit card fraud insurance. Sure, that likely saves me money too, since increased premiums will most certainly not come out of the bank’s profits but, instead, end up turning into increases in what they euphemistically call “transaction fees.” So yes, I could be angry at how their efforts to protect their own interests gets portrayed as protecting those of the customers who loan them their money for safe keeping in the first place. But instead, I simply think that this is a fruitful moment to mull over how contingency and necessity bump and grind, i.e., how we create the latter from selections of the former and which, when used as a rule by which to measure the future, is bound to fail.
Photo: W. C. Fields in “The Bank Dick” (1940)