Imagine a world where everything you ever do or say is watched and rated by invisible eyes.
- Who do you talk to?
- What did you buy?
- Do you brush your teeth?
- Did you forget to floss?
- Do you watch too much TV or play video games or talk on the phone?
- Do you own a gun?
- Do you recycle?
- Are your political opinions in line with the people in power?
- Did you pay your water bill or taxes on time?
Now imagine if all the things you ever did wrong followed you around like a big, bright red Scarlett letter.
No matter how small the screw up you could never escape it again. It would haunt you forever as you tried to get a job or get on the safe travel list in your thirties and forties.
Did you smoke dope in high school? Shoplift when you were thirteen? Get in a bar fight? Spray paint a wall?
What if everything you said on social media was monitored, collected, collated and rated? Actually, that’s not hard to picture at all. That’s exactly what happens with everything from your instant messages, to what you search and say. Everything you do online gets recorded somewhere by brute force software agents patiently cataloging every last digital drop. The latest Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal is just one in a long line of data abuses.
You may think you’re Facebook’s customer but you’re not, advertisers are Facebook’s customers.
You’re the product.
That’s because the business of the Internet is surveillance.
Our social media platforms are really nothing but stealth surveillance platforms.
In the early days of the net everybody rolled out free services but eventually those companies had to keep the lights on. So they made data mining the key to keeping them in business. They monitor our web of relationships, what we like and don’t like and use that to deliver ads.
But what if that information wasn’t just for serving ads and instead used for something much, much more sinister?
What if the government gave you a score that dictated everything you could or couldn’t do in life?
Want to buy a house or car? Sorry. You’re not qualified. Not because of your financial status but because you once said something bad about the government. Need a bus ticket? You can’t board because you’re banned for speaking out against some unjust policy. Oh and you can’t get on a train or fly either because you once opened your mouth in a chat forum when you were fifteen.
And your score doesn’t stop there.
What if you couldn’t even get a date or get married because that score made you a social pariah?
Now imagine you’re in a horrible car wreck and the hospital won’t treat you.
Picture your kids getting kicked out of a good school because those three little digits dropped dramatically.
This isn’t some sci-fi fantasy. It’s real and it’s rolling out in China right now.
It’s called the Social Credit System (SCS) and if it sounds like a dystopian sci-fi nightmare that’s because it is a dystopian sci-fi nightmare.
Orwell and Mao Walk into a Bar
It all started in 2014 when the State Council of China issued a document ripped right from the pages of a Black Mirror episode called Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System.
Like all socialists state documents it’s painfully boring to read and layered with absurdly over the top language that goes back to the Communist propaganda era such as “carry forward the positive and upward, sincere and trust-keeping traditional culture of the Chinese nation” and “fully give rein to the propaganda and guiding roles of television, radio, newspapers, the Internet.”
The word “sincere” appears hundreds of times in the document, sometimes in the very same sentence:
“Carry forward a culture of sincerity with members of society as targets, with sincerity propaganda as method and with sincerity education as carrier, forcefully advocate sincerity and ethical norms, carry forward the positive and upward, sincere and trust-keeping traditional culture of the Chinese nation and the contract spirit of the modern market economy, and shape social morals of venerating sincerity and practicing sincerity.”
Read it quickly and you might be fooled into thinking the system is a good thing. After all, sincerity is the foundation of a strong society. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place where everyone is true to their word?
But like all things in life a system is only as good as its creators.
And it’s how the creators define the word sincerity that makes all the difference. To you and me sincerity might mean treating your brothers and sisters with love and respect and taking care of your parents when they’re old and sick.
To a totalitarian regime sincerity means something else entirely:
Obedience to the will of the state.
The nature of propaganda is bending good words in the service of evil. It takes words and twists them so they mean the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to mean. Like a serial killer using flattery to lure you into his car in the dark of night, propaganda is designed to disguise the true intentions of the propagandists.
On the surface the system is billed as nothing more than a credit score, similar to the credit score so ubiquitous in American life. But as you look deeper it becomes more and more obvious just how far that is from the truth.
The system is still in its early days but it’s moving quickly. It’s running pilot programs with eight megacorporations. The two largest companies backing the social manipulation platform are Tencent, maker of WeChat, the biggest and most widely used app in the world, with more than 800 million users and Ant Financial Services Group an arm of Alibaba, the eBay of China. Ant owns AliPay, a centralized digital payment system used by people for everything from ordering food, to getting taxis, to buying all kinds of things online not just items from the eBay style marketplace of Alibaba. AliPay rolled out one of the first arms of the social system called Sesame Credit which tracks your financial life.
But it goes well beyond whether you pay your bills on time or have too much debt.
The system already tracks all of your shopping habits and decides the kind of person you are because of those shopping habits with a black box algorithm. In other words your shopping habits become your character.
Buying diapers? That means you’re probably a good mother and trustworthy. Unless you’re seventeen and an unmarried single mother which means you’re more likely a societal cancer to the machine. Play too many video games and you’ll be tracked as an indolent freeloader instead of just some kid on summer vacation.
As Rachel Botsman writes in an extensive Wired write up on the system:
“Alibaba admits it judges people by the types of products they buy. “Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,” says Li Yingyun, Sesame’s Technology Director.
Already the system is pulling more and more data into its authoritarian vortex.
If you’re paying close attention, that gives the system access chat apps, dating apps, travel apps, ecommerce and social media.
In other words it tells them who you talk to, what you say to them, what you buy, where you go, who you’re friends with and who you’re dating.
In short, everything that makes you, you.
The system looks to score citizens in four categories. The first three are innocent enough, at least in principle, credit history, legal, and accuracy of personally identifying information. The fourth category is outright terrifying. It tracks social behavior, preferences and beliefs.
The most insidious parts of the system use the web of your personal relationships to trap you like a black widow trapping a fly. If your friends and family’s scores go down it will drag your scores down too. And it will raise your score if you unfriend them or stop talking with them all together.
What you say will hurt you too. Want to complain about the lung shredding clouds of Beijing pollution that causes babies to be born with tumors? Better think twice because it will crush your score. Maybe you want to talk about the government official who turned your small town into an e-waste garbage dump, or forcibly sold the country’s precious farm land so they could build a golf course? Down goes your score because you posted the dark truth.
But go ahead and tweet fake economic statistics about how beautifully the economy booms and your score goes up. Regurgitate articles from China Daily, the mouthpiece of the Party, and watch your score resolutely improve socialism! Unfollow reactionaries and social deviants and up it goes again!
When lies equal truth, societies crumble.
Amazingly the system has its apologists in China who proudly display their high scores and resent nosy westerners pointing out the dark undercurrent of the dystopian system. They swear it’s just a simple credit rating system like the American credit system on steroids. They’re also quick to point out that it’s a private system and not a government system.
None of those lies survive even the most cursory and basic Google search.
While it’s true the system is primarily private at this point that’s because the government wanted to test the system with the vast IT arms of its most powerful digital companies. But make no mistake it is a government mandated initiative. Tencent didn’t just come up with the idea on their own. The State Council is the official administrative authority of China and they issued the document that outlined what they wanted from their private partners.
The second lie is that it’s just a credit system. A system that tracks who your friends are and whether your practicing “population and birth control” to uphold the one child policy is tracking a lot more than whether you pay your bills on time.
There’s a saying in China that goes “Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away” meaning the prying eyes of the government don’t go as far as everyone fears and if you keep your head down you can stay under the radar. Contrary to popular belief, China has always been a highly decentralized place. Regional leaders always had more power than the central government over day to day affairs. It’s almost as if the south had won the Civil War in the United States and established a weaker central government with stronger state powers. That’s how China always worked going back to the time of the Warlords and before that to the days of the Emperor.
The Social Credit System puts the Emperor in your pocket.
Even worse, the system uses a dark web of incentives to reward and punish people for following the party line at all costs.
In other words, the Chinese regime just figured out how to gamify authoritarianism.
Right now the system is optional. It’s optional in the way Facebook collecting all your data for ads is optional, as in it’s happening no matter what.
And by 2020 it goes full mandatory.
That means if you live or work in China you get rated whether you like it or not.
And that’s when Black Mirror becomes real life.
The Invisible Panopticon
It’s time to face a hard truth.
The technologies we created with utopian dreams have failed us. They’ve increasingly gotten hijacked by megacorporations and governments to enslave us all.
There’s a reason Utopia means “no place.”
Utopia doesn’t exist and it never will. Anyone who set out to build a utopia eventually fails whether that’s a virtual or physical one.
We set out to create technology to set us free. Instead, everywhere we’re building invisible Panopticons.
The Social Credit System, the stealth data gathering of spy agencies, the increasing abuse of our personal and private lives by big corporations are the norm now. And it will keep getting worse and worse until people draw a line.
It’s not just China either. If you live in an ostensibly democratic society you might look across the waters with smug self assurance and think “it can’t happen here” but it already does happen with spy agencies and huge companies tracking our entire lives by the digital trails we leave. Very few central powers can resist the urge to gather more and more data on their people.
Data is the new oil and the new gold.
Whether governments and corporations gather stats about us openly or under the radar, the result is the same, a massive database of digital control.
We don’t have a public score in the U.S. designed to get people to tow the political line but sometimes the stealth power of the scores we do have are just as insidious in the way they shape behavior.
Did you know your US credit score actually punishes you for having less debt? That’s right.
When I grew up and managed to dig my way out of credit card debt after many years I decided I never wanted any more debt so I don’t own a house or buy a new car every few years. I’ll drive my car until the doors fall off. At first, as I chipped away at my deficit spending my score climbed and climbed. But later, after I’d made my way in the world and weaned myself off debt for good, I noticed something strange. My score flat-lined or slightly declined. When I dug into it I saw that I was being penalized for not having a mortgage and not carrying enough of a credit card balance.
In other words I was punished for not having more debt.
How sick is that?
And that’s how these scores manipulate us.
They gamify behavior in ugly ways. They push you to do what the score wants you to do, not what you want to do. What the score wants is not what’s good for you but what’s good for the people who created the score.
That’s why the Chinese system is so insidious. It gamifies much more than debt. It gamifies subservience to the state and it pushes people to embrace lies.
Over time the lies wear a person down. Soldiers trapped in torture prisons in war often end up with Stockholm syndrome. They come to believe and love their captor’s abuse.
At first people might just retweet fake economic statistics to game the system but over time, slowly, surely, subtly they’ll come to believe the lies. They’ll believe with all their heart that the economy is booming and the outsiders are trying to bring them down.
And they will believe them right until the economy crashes and they’re out of a job, which will come as a complete surprise because they bought into the lie so completely and fully.
That’s why at the end of 1984, Winston doesn’t just break under the relentless onslaught of Big Brother. Big Brother eventually infects his very mind so he turns on the only woman he ever loved and even worse he turns on his true nature.
The last line of the book is “He loved Big Brother.”
Two Roads Diverged in the Woods
We’re at a crossroads in history.
Digital technology has transformed everything from travel, to education, to communication. It’s democratized knowledge and connected the farthest reaches of the planet into a single global village. In so many ways it’s made our lives richer but there’s a dark undercurrent we never expected, a Devil’s bargain at work.
Now the very same tech that made as smarter and more connected is turning against us. We thought we’d built an unstoppable system of free expression and free communication but instead we secretly built digital chains to bind us all.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
There’s still time to fix it.
But it’s up to each and every person. Each of us has to wake up and see the gathering storm on the horizon and recognize that once the most evil people have digital control of our entire lives there is no turning back without horrific possibilities.
Anything in life can be used for both good and evil. Digital systems are no different. It’s the intent that shapes those systems.
Wrong intent, wrong system. Poison tree, poison fruit.
People imagine that law and rules are universally good but they’re only as good as the people in power who create them. A system that could accurately rate people’s trustworthiness and authenticity could be a good thing if it were possible to create an objective one. But humans don’t do objectivity. We do bias and greed and delusion.
Never forget that everything the Nazis did was legal because they made oppression and genocide legal. In the hands of the wicked technology becomes wicked.
That’s why the only good system is an agnostic one, built with checks and balances to crush any group that tries to seize it for their own dark designs. That’s the reason I stand behind decentralized systems, so no one power can force-feed their warped ideology down everyone’s throats. Even if a system is built by the most enlightened men and women who ever walked the face of the Earth eventually someone with very different desires will come to power. And they will find every way to exploit the weaknesses of any poorly designed system for their own advantages.
There are only a few solutions:
We have to design decentralized systems that don’t give them the data in the first place. If there’s no data there’s nothing to exploit, nothing to corrupt and abuse.
The second is to build a system with data that we have complete and total sovereignty over. If people want it they have to come to us. We have to build systems with checks and balances that lock in open forever.
That’s the most essential characteristic of any strong system. It must resist, at all costs, and in all circumstances, the power of any one group to take over the system.
History is a battle between open and closed, centralized and decentralized.
Any system that looks to cement the power of one group over everyone else eventually collapses.
But that’s often little consolation to the people living through the nightmare because it doesn’t happen over night. It takes people waking up and standing up for their own lives.
It takes time and sacrifice but once people realize true change is needed nothing can stop that change.
In the end there’s no cage that can hold the human spirit.
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