TECH & SCIENCE

Wangaratta Chronicle - North East Regional Extra - - FRONT PAGE - with CHRIS

THE dystopian Black Mir­ror episode ‘Nose­dive’ imag­ines a world in which ev­ery cit­i­zen is in­trin­si­cally linked to their so­cial me­dia ac­counts, and ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing they do in life is rated on a scale of one to five by ev­ery per­son they en­counter, and ev­ery per­son they as­so­ciate with.

Take a selfie in the gym, com­pli­ment a waiter who served you, or post a nice mes­sage on your so­cial me­dia feed that is de­signed to en­gen­der emo­tional warmth and pos­i­tiv­ity, and fel­low users may deign to give you a high so­cial score rat­ing.

Con­versely, if you’re hav­ing a bad day and you are rude to some­one, or you are spot­ted eat­ing some­thing un­healthy, or even if you’re just as­so­ci­ated with the ‘wrong’ type of peo­ple, then your so­cial score will suf­fer thanks to the judg­ment of oth­ers.

And this sys­tem doesn’t sim­ply ex­ist in a bub­ble, your so­cial score af­fects ev­ery as­pect of your life - from the loans you can ap­ply for, to the area in which you can pur­chase a house.

Through the course of the episode, the main char­ac­ter La­cie, a des­per­ate so­cial climber, meets an un­for­tu­nate fate as events tran­spire against her and she is left a so­cial dis­grace (at least ac­cord­ing to the so­cial credit sys­tem that gov­erns the lives of all the char­ac­ters), ul­ti­mately find­ing her­self im­pris­oned with other ‘degenerates’.

Sounds like an Or­wellian night­mare, right?

Only it isn’t a night­mare.

For the cit­i­zens of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China, this ‘so­cial credit sys­tem’ is very real, and it’s even worse than the fever dreams of the Black Mir­ror writ­ers.

At least the sys­tem in ‘Nose­dive’ was built around a ‘peer sys­tem’ where ev­ery mem­ber of the pub­lic rated ev­ery­one else - in a, let’s say, some­what even handed man­ner that was marginally shielded from cor­rup­tion and de­ceit.

Alas, in China, their brand of so­cial credit sys­tem, which au­thor­i­ties boast has al­ready black­listed seven mil­lion in­di­vid­u­als as ‘un­trust­wor­thy’, is heav­ily in­ter­twined with the Com­mu­nist Party of China - the rul­ing gov­ern­ment.

Var­i­ous lo­cal gov­ern­ments have been run­ning pi­lot pro­grams at pro­vin­cial and city lev­els for some time.

Pri­vate com­pa­nies, mean­while, have also been run­ning par­al­lel so­cial credit schemes, most no­tably ‘Se­same Credit’ which has been de­vel­oped by Ant Fi­nan­cial - a sub­sidiary of Alibaba, which owns one of the largest third-party pay­ment meth­ods used by Chi­nese cit­i­zens for daily trans­ac­tions.

The so­cial credit sys­tems mon­i­tor the be­hav­iour of cit­i­zens through a va­ri­ety of tech­no­log­i­cal means - from fa­cial recog­ni­tion in CCTV footage, to examination of bank records and credit his­tory, to ob­serv­ing online ac­tiv­i­ties and in­ter­ac­tions, work his­tory, phone records, con­sumer records and even friend and fa­mil­ial ties.

Ba­si­cally, you name it, and they are watch­ing it.

Big Brother eat your heart out.

The sys­tems are pur­port­edly de­signed to en­gi­neer bet­ter in­di­vid­ual be­hav­iour by as­sign­ing China’s 1.4 bil­lion cit­i­zens a score, thereby grant­ing a mech­a­nism by which to ‘award the trust­wor­thy’ and ‘pun­ish the dis­obe­di­ent’.

And just what be­hav­iour con­sti­tutes ‘trust­wor­thi­ness’ or ‘dis­obe­di­ence’, you may ask?

Ac­cord­ing to po­lice in the city of Suzhou, their top rated, (and thereby most trusted cit­i­zen) was awarded a score of 134 out of 200 af­ter com­plet­ing 500 hours of vol­un­teer work and do­nat­ing a litre of blood - ad­mit­tedly quite vir­tu­ous acts.

But it’s be­hav­iour that con­sti­tutes ‘dis­obe­di­ence’ and its as­so­ci­ated pun­ish­ments that are of most per­ti­nent con­cern.

Ac­cord­ing to a lawyer in Bei­jing, Li Jin­gling, the pi­lot schemes had pri­mar­ily been tar­get­ing two main groups; those who dis­obey court or­ders or fail to pay debts, and those who pose a threat to the Party’s rule - po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents, pro­tes­tors, pe­ti­tion­ers and their fam­i­lies.

You knew that was com­ing, didn’t you?

These pur­vey­ors of so­cial dis­or­der can ex­pect to, and al­ready have, suf­fered such pun­ish­ment as be­ing re­fused ac­co­mo­da­tion in star rated ho­tels, pur­chas­ing prop­erty, go­ing on hol­i­day, us­ing pub­lic trans­port, and even en­rolling their chil­dren in pri­vate schools (yes, the pun­ish­ment is in­ter­gen­er­a­tional).

Un­doubt­edly, op­pres­sive techno-au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism on the scale of 1.4 bil­lion in­di­vid­ual scores is man­i­festly un­work­able, but that is not stop­ping the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment from forg­ing ahead as it seeks to have a ‘fully op­er­a­tional Death Star’...I mean…’so­cial credit sys­tem’ in place na­tion­wide by 2020.

Al­ready, there are re­ports of false ac­cu­sa­tion and mis­in­for­ma­tion re­sult­ing in the pun­ish­ment of in­no­cents.

For my part, I can’t imag­ine a worse abuse of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment.

Wel­come to the Age of In­for­ma­tion’s spe­cial brand of tyranny.

◆ TECHNO-AU­THOR­I­TAR­I­AN­ISM: China’s new so­cial credit schemes aim to en­gi­neer the be­hav­iour of it’s cit­i­zen’s by mon­i­tor­ing al­most ev­ery­thing they do and as­sign an ac­cor­dant so­cial credit score.

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