Big Brother Becomes Social
Black Mirror examines the unanticipated side effects of modern technology. The series tackles subjects ranging from creating 3D printed versions of deceased loved ones to life in a world where most people record everything they see, do, or hear.
One of the most thought-provoking episodes is Nosedive, which explores the implications of a universal social network where people continually rate one another. The higher your score – which anyone can see with a special eye implant – the better your socio-economic status. For instance, with a rating below 4.0, you can’t buy a last-minute airline ticket. With a rating of 4.5 or higher, you qualify for a discount on a luxury apartment.
(Spoiler alert. If you think you’d like to watch Nosedive, you may want to watch it before reading the rest of this article.)
Lacie, the lead character in Nosedive, is obsessed with achieving a rating of 4.5 or higher so she can enjoy the trappings of a better score. But after a series of mishaps, her score plunges. Her friends desert her, because having a friend with a low score lowers your score as well. Eventually, she winds up in prison.
Life sometimes imitates art. Consider China’s Social Credit System, a real-world example of the fictional system Nosedive depicts. The State Council of China announced the creation of the system in 2014. When the Social Credit System launches in 2020, it will aggregate data collected from social networks, web searches, purchasing records, and other information on 1.3 billion Chinese citizens and will assign every citizen a “national trust score.”
Good citizens – those who regularly praise the Communist party and don’t have friends rated as subversive, for instance – will enjoy higher ratings. And as in Nosedive, higher-rated citizens will enjoy perks denied to lower-rated citizens. They will include access to better schools, fewer visa formalities, and improved job opportunities.
The backbone of this system is a network of mobile payment and social networking apps. Only a few years ago, China was essentially an all-cash society, but the convenience of mobile payments has led to explosive growth in this sector. The Chinese mobile payments market now amounts to about $5.5 trillion annually. And of course, while it’s nearly impossible to collect and analyze records of cash payments, electronic purchasing records greatly simplify that task.
Chinese electronic payment networks like Alipay (part of online retailing giant Alibaba) also offer investments, appointment scheduling, and built-in social networks. You can even use Alipay to book a room on Airbnb or hail a ride on Uber. Zhima Credit, another mobile app owned by Alibaba, functions as the equivalent of a credit bureau. Essentially, Alibaba has created an online ecosystem that could easily be tied into the Social Credit System.
Zhima Credit reminds me a lot of Nosedive. It bills itself as creating a score that gives you “credit for everything in life.” The score is based not only on whether you reliably pay your bills, but on factors such as how much education you’ve completed and the scores of your friends.
Your Zhima score is based on factors that will easily mesh with the Social Credit System: your spending and credit history; the credit standing of your friends on Alipay’s social network; your level of educational and economic achievement; and the types of purchases you make. One way to improve your score, just as in Nosedive, is to seek out individuals with higher scores and convince them to become your friend. You can also make “higher quality” purchases; Alipay’s technology director suggests that individuals who purchase diapers get better ratings than those who spend money on video games.
It’s anyone’s guess how 1.3 billion Chinese citizens will react once a Zhima-like credit score is assigned to each of them by their central government. One scenario is a lifelong popularity contest, where citizens compete to see who can make the most favorable comments about the achievements of the Communist Party.
I prefer the scenario that concluded Nosedive. Once Lacie’s social rating hit rock bottom, she realized she could say, think, or do anything she wanted, without fear of social disapproval. As the Social Credit System rolls out in China, and similar initiatives are announced in other countries, I foresee the rise of a subculture of those who deliberately disconnect from as many social and financial networks as possible.
The optimistic scenario is that these individuals will set up their own payment and social networks based on blockchain technologies that aren’t dependent on a central authority. The pessimistic one is that, like Lacie, they’ll wind up in prison. But at least there, they won’t need to worry about their national trust score.
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