Have you ever watched Black Mirror and thought, “That’s terrifying, but it could never actually happen?” Well, our pals over in China are about to test out at least one of those modern and terrifying concepts… and its not the one that involves the pig. China is introducing a Social Credit System which should be fully active by 2020. In essence, Chinese citizens will be assigned a “citizen score” which will determine how many perks or punishments they will receive in their everyday lives. It’s essentially a version of the Black Mirror episode, Nosedive starring Bryce Dallas Howard… or -if you are like us- it is also kind of like that Community episode, App Development and Condiments. And if you are confused, let us explain:
Jeff Winging It
You see Community was an underrated Dan Harmon show -the Rick and Morty guy- that lasted for six seasons -without a movie- on various networks and platforms and was an absolutely stupendously fabulous… Oh, you thought we were going to explain the Chinese Social Credit System? Fine, I guess we can talk about that too…
The Social Credit System is the Chinese government’s newest experiment in controlling their citizens. In a way, it is actually a fairly genius idea. It essentially gamifies the idea of citizenship. Chinese citizens earn a points for doing things that fall inline with the ideals of their government: paying taxes on time, being a loyal party member, shopping at the right stores, visiting the right websites, etc. Their score also decreases for doing things that are not inline with the ruling party of China: visiting the wrong websites, committing crimes, speaking out against the government, reading the wrong sorts of articles, spending too much times playing video games -yes they can monitor that- or posting on social media about controversial topics. Having a high Citizen Score means getting discounts on hotels, car rentals, insurance, and getting paperwork, like visas, fast-tracked. Having a low Citizen Score means going on a public blacklist, getting denied admittance to the best hotels, having your children denied entry into the best schools, only being able to use low speed internet, getting denied job opportunities, not getting approved for certain permits, and being banned from travel on flights or trains.
In the world of Community, when the gang is introduced to the MeowMeowBeanz app which allows people to rate other people based upon their agreeableness and interactions it only takes about three hours for the school to devolve into an homage of Logan’s Run. Anyone with the best score is elevated to the level of gods, while anyone with a score of 1 MeowMeowBean or lower is banished to the Outlands. The episode’s premise is treated with the usual tongue-in-cheek nonchalance which the show is famous for, but it does lampoon a very scary idea, which is not that far off, and we’re not even talking about just in China.
Abed You Didn’t See that Coming
What China is doing is as ingenious as it is evil. The systems they are using: facial recognition, pattern data, internet cookies, and more are already in place. They were not put there by the Chinese government, but by tech firms and corporations in order to track our spending habits and better collect data on how we live our lives. All China is doing is connecting these systems into one big massive citizenship game that emphasizes their values and interests as a country and de-emphasizes the elements of society they wish to see eradicated. That is gamification in a nut shell. It is the idea of using our human love of competition and earning rewards in order to modify our behavior through a game-like mechanic. Companies and people, like comedian Samantha Bee, already use gamification to promote all sorts of behaviors. In the instance of Sam Bee she create an app meant to get people to register to vote… which is a good thing… but where does this idea end?
You may want to judge China for creating such a system, but the truth is that it is actually just the next technological step to things we are already doing today. Our government already regulates criminal behavior and give incentives for good behavior. Various crimes carry appropriate punishments based on how heinous they are to our value system. We implement policies to change people’s behavior all the time. In a rudimentary way our laws and tax breaks are meant as signposts of how citizens should behave, and what they are supposed to value as a society. However, they are also inefficient. The Social Credit System of China is essentially a 2.0 model for social engineering, and we know its effective because it may not even need to be mandatory. China’s system will become compulsory starting in 2020, but their pilot version is working right now, and those using it tend to respond positively. Now take into account that only the good citizens would probably willfully apply to this system, and saying anything bad about the system may actually cause your score to go down… so its a grain-of-salt-type-thing, but there is a lot of incentive to join systems like this, especially if they are beneficial to the individual.*
MeowMeowBeanz was entirely voluntary. It was an app that people could either download or not download, but through a combination of social forces, competitiveness, and potential rewards everyone in the school -even Jeff Winger- eventually succumbed to the peer pressure and contributed to the ensuing hellscape -and out-of-place Tim and Eric cameos- that became Greendale. It’s like if we offered to mail you a ten dollar bill simply for giving this article a good review. Why not? Ten dollars is ten dollars… but what if we then threatened to take ten dollars from you if you reviewed us negatively. Well, that is even more incentive to give us a good review. After all, what does it matter: it’s just an internet article… its just paying your taxes on time, its just not sharing that possibly-negative-meme-that compares Xi Jinping with Winnie the Pooh, it’s just not speaking out against the human rights violations you see being committed by your government, its just choosing to keep your head down and remain purposely unaware of anything that might make you uncomfortable or affect your citizen score…
*Please note that we are not saying these megalomaniac-super-villain-esque plot by the Chinese government is at all good. We believe that it is scary and dystopian and almost as bad as anything Mark Zuckerberg has done. We are just saying it may be incredibly effective.
Better Britta than Dead
Now, we are not saying that the US Government or the UK or the EU or even New Zealand -We got our eyes on you New Zealand- are going to implement a state-wide citizen score system anytime soon, but they may not have too. China’s influence is rapidly expanding across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe with the construction of their New Silk Road. Countries are lining up to get the benefit of Chinese products and trade, and that also means more incentive to enact laws that better align a country with China. This is conjecture, but that might be enough incentive for countries -especially more authoritarian ones- to start using this social credit model. In essence, China could start rating countries the way it rates its own citizens, and in the end it may all be done voluntarily.
Simply creating a system like this is often enough to draw people in and start them on a path to a tiered social system where all those with the power have to do is sit back in their white robes and enjoy luxury as the lowest rungs toil under a surveillance state of their own making with nobody to blame but the people who try to speak out against it… and Britta Perry. It will be interesting to see how this Social Credit System works going forward, and if it is successful we may find ourselves in a new and unfamiliar world.