Last week an extract from Rachel Botsman’s new book “Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart” was shared on www.Wired.com.
The piece discussed China's controversial Social Credit System. A program which takes into account various metrics in a citizen’s life in order to measure their “trustworthiness”.
An individuals’ SCS score is determined by five criteria. The first two are ‘Credit History’ and ‘Fulfilment Capacity’, which measure the individuals’ ability to pay bills, repay debts and fulfil their contractual obligations.
The third category, ‘Personal Characteristics’, is determined by the amount of personal data (e.g. phone number or address) the individual has disclosed. So far this all seems relatively banal and is not too dissimilar from any western Credit Score System.
The fourth criteria ‘Behaviour and Preference’, is where some alarm bells are being raised. This category measures the individuals’ “shopping preferences” – where they shop, what books they read, what music they listen to, etc. Obviously, there are a number of issues with media consumption being used as a measure of character.
The fifth criteria ‘Interpersonal Relationships’ has also given cause for concern. This category assesses who you interact with online and what kinds of messages you share.
For example, sharing positive messages about the government or the economy creates “Positive Energy”, which raises your score. However, an individuals’ score may be brought down for associating with friends or families who the SCS deems to be less trustworthy. This too is obviously problematic.
These range from mundane features of day-to-day living, such as access to faster internet speeds, shorter check-ins at hotels and how prominent their profile is on dating sites, to more serious consequences such as the ability to travel abroad, which schools their children can attend, access to social welfare, and eligibility for public office.
Botsman draws a comparison between what is currently happening in China and Black Mirror’s season three episode ‘Nosedive’, which sees Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas-Howard) having to navigate her way through a dystopian future where social media ratings dictate access to housing, employment and transport, indirectly creating a hierarchal system which rewards appearance but gives little esteem to authenticity (ironic, since SCS is also trying to “promote authenticity”).
It is easy to see why this comparison is drawn. However, there are three key differences that suggest China’s SCS could potentially be far more pernicious than the ranking system seen in Nosedive.
First, with China’s social credit system you are being ranked by the government, not your peers. In Nosedive, although we don’t really see it, there is always the chance you could deviate from the mainstream and still maintain a relatively high-score, provided you surround yourself with people who share your values, opinions, and tastes. You could succeed within your own “filter-bubble”.
There is much more room for nuance and context. China’s SCS however, has a one-size-fits-all set of values that apply to every one of its citizens. There is no flexibility. While you can still decide what books you read and who you hang out with, if the government doesn’t deem them acceptable, they will have a negative effect on your score.
Another way China’s SCS differs from the system we see in Nosedive is that your actions effect not just your own score, but also the scores of those around you. In Nosedive, some “toxic” individuals with lower scores are shunned by society.
They are ignored and refused services. We see 3 examples of this throughout the episode; Lacie’s colleague Chester, who is very stressed out about his low score, Lacie’s brother Ryan, who has a low score but doesn’t seem to care, and Susan, who completely rejects the system. However in each case, their low score is a reflection of their own choices.
This is not the case with China’s SCS, where it’s possible your child may be prevented from attending the best schools because you choose to associate with people who the government believes spend too much time playing video games.
This ties into the final way the SCS is worse than Nosedives system. Nosedive shows us that the most authentic and least stressed out people are those who reject the ranking system. They’re free to do their own thing and pursue their own idea of the good life, so long as they’re willing to put up with a few inconveniences.
With the SCS system, however, the consequences of opting out are far greater. Opting-out may still be somewhat liberating but could be a significant burden for all your friends and family.
It’s important to realise that much of what we know about the government’s rollout of a mandatory social credit system in 2020 is completely speculative. The system that exists now is just a prototype, it is unclear which aspects will be kept in its final form.
It also has to be said that it’s easy to look at it from a western perspective, through the lens of a western dystopian sci-fi show, and judge it negatively. But China is a very different society, with much greater levels of social cohesion. Trust in government is purportedly over 80%. The Social Credit System appears to be popular with the public. Millions have already enthusiastically opted in. They’re even boasting about their scores on Weibo.
Finally, it’s worth considering that the premium we put on individuality (and recently “authenticity”) in the western world is largely a product of our capitalist history. It may well be overrated.
Especially considering it’s happening in a country whose president Xi Jinping is expected to rule until at least 2027, and whose own philosophy “Xi Jinping thought” has recently been enshrined into the constitution.
Large systems love predictability. It is unlikely the SCS will be designed in a way that allows its citizens to significantly challenge the status quo.