What’s Your Social Credit Score?
“The social experiment in China under Chairman Mao’s leadership is one of the most important and successful in human history.”
New York Times, 10 Aug 1973
Cybernetics is about continuous data collection. It’s a system that requires continuous influx of information to inform the feedback loops. Those who program the algorithms can use the loops to alter feelings, thoughts, beliefs, behavior, and ultimately, reality.
We’ve already seen how these systems can alter human behavior, but it’s only 2019; post-post-modern humanity ain’t seen nothing yet.
The Chinese government has instituted a high-tech, data vacuuming social credit score system to continuously monitor the “trustworthiness” and obedience of its 1.4 billion citizens, the full nationwide rollout of which is expected next year 2020.
Each citizen will be tracked, rated, and rewarded or punished by the government with the help of its high tech corporate partners. In Wired’s article, “Inside China’s Vast New Experiment in Social Ranking,” the social credit system is described succinctly: “For the Chinese Communist Party, social credit is an attempt at a softer, more invisible authoritarianism. The goal is to nudge people toward behaviors ranging from energy conservation to obedience to the Party.”
There will be no more personal experiences… only transactions for the social credit system.
Social credit systems monitor whether people pay bills on time, much like financial credit trackers — but also ascribe a moral dimension. This system is so much more than bill paying. It is run on continuous surveillance paired with a series of digital blacklists, more than a dozen at the national level. Other noted punishable offenses include spending too long playing video games, wasting money on frivolous purchases, or posting unapproved thoughts on social media.
China’s social credit system began in 2014 with the deployment of millions of CCTV surveillance cameras throughout the country. As of 2019, eight of the 10 most surveilled cities in the world are now located in China. Chongqing, considered the world’s most surveilled city on the planet, boasts some 2.58 million CCTV cameras – that’s one for every six citizens, and 30 times the number of cameras in Washington, DC. In other words, every person’s every move in public is being watched pretty much all the time. There are plans for well over 600 million CCTV cameras to be operational in China by next year.
But it isn’t just surveillance; AI and facial recognition has also been rolled out all over the place. Chinese people are using their faces to access everything from apps to ATMs, to getting on planes and subways, to entry into school and office buildings, to paying for their fast food with their face. But that’s just the start. Police are walking around like it’s Minority Report, wearing sunglasses with built-in facial recognition scanning everyone for “persons of interest”. In several cities including Shenzhen, authorities have reportedly launched facial recognition systems that recognizes jaywalkers, then splashes their faces on giant screens looming over the streets in an effort to shame them before sending a jaywalking fine to their phone. At some street corners, an alarm is even sounded when the jaywalker steps off the sidewalk so that the moment their face is captured by the system will look even more embarrassing, kinda like what a theme park roller coaster cam might capture. And, obviously, the person’s social credit score goes down…
Facial recognition in subways has been heralded as a way to easy crowd congestion, with some passengers who register for special programs being allowed to go through less security, but the system is constantly monitoring each passenger’s behavior in order to assign them a security level.
AI and facial recognition has also been rolled out in Chinese schools. Some have launched facial recognition programs that go well beyond monitoring for attendance. One system also scans students’ engagement and behavior in the classroom in real-time. The system, dubbed the “Intelligent Classroom Behavior Management System,” scans the class every 30 seconds repeatedly all day long looking for facial expressions it can categorize as neutral, happy, sad, scared, disappointed, angry, or surprised. Certain behaviors are also analyzed, such as hand raising, writing, reading, and listening. This gets young children programmed for the digital panopticon they are growing up into.
Every person’s behavior is tracked not just in public, but online. In 2018, the New York Times announced that Google was in the process of building China a special censored search engine. In a first for any country anywhere, beginning December 2019, new legislation will require all Chinese citizens to use facial recognition in order to sign up for Internet services or get a new cell phone number; residents will also be banned from transferring their numbers to someone else.
All of this surveillance and AI is being used to assign China’s residents with a social credit score which goes up and down based on digitally tracked and traced behaviors that are being analyzed throughout the day. The government says this system will “purify” society and create a “socially credible environment” by rewarding people the government deems “trustworthy” and punishing those who aren’t.
Everything from not paying bills on time to political dissidence against the Party counts against the score. People with high scores have access to nicer housing, more travel options, and better schools for their children. China’s biggest dating website has agreed to boost the profiles of people with high scores so they get more dates. High rankers also receive discounts on their energy bills, don’t have to pay deposits on hotel rooms and other rentals, and better interest rates on loans. Like putting a kid’s drawing up on the fridge, citizens with high rankings who do good things get posted on community boards and are given prizes like trophies.
People with lower scores, however… well, it’s something straight out of a Black Mirror episode where the digital world takes over reality and imparts real-life consequences.
Neighbors better get along too, because if they don’t, their personal business is splashed all over community boards for everyone else to see and publicly shame them.
The lesson imparted really isn’t about the value of being a decent person of high character and moral values… instead, it’s about living in constant fear under constant tyrannical surveillance, being afraid of public scrutiny and shame, while sucking up to authority and the government.
The social credit system has been used in so many ways its hard to list them all, and this is just the beginning.
This is what happens after people have been fed into a system of continuous data transfer, where they have gotten more and more used to freely and continuously giving up their data in the name of safety and convenience. A system where they’ve taken everyone’s data and openly exploited and weaponized it. The futuristic technological Hegelian dialectic economic hybrid of capitalism and communism is unfolding before our eyes like something out of George Orwell’s dizziest nightmares.
We’re already seeing the infrastructure for this system being rolled out piecemeal across the rest of the world.
On top of that, people are now willingly covering their homes in surveillance cameras and always listening smart speaker devices. The concept of privacy is slowly being groomed out of humanity.
Keep in mind society at large still hasn’t even solved basic issues like poverty and the growing wealth gap, homelessness, deficient healthcare, unemployment, government corruption… The list goes on and on, and nothing about these systems appears to be aimed at doing all that much about it either. It’s pretty clear the ultimately goal here is not liberation through technology but Orwellian digital panopticon-level control in the name of safety and convenience.
The gamification of society isn’t news or even new… we’ve been prodded in this direction for decades now in the form of video games, financial credit scores, even frequent flyer miles and shopper points systems. But the question remains: what happens when the game becomes so enmeshed in real life that no one is allowed to stop playing? Where everything a person does in modern society – every interaction both online and off – is tracked, traced, and then rewarded or punished?
And who gets to make up the rules of the game we should all be forced to play by?