TECH & SCIENCE
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.