Techno-dystopias are here: China is proof
In October 2016, when the techno-paranoiac science fiction show Black Mirror aired another dystopic episode called Nosedive, it wasn’t immediately clear how close to home the story about social credit ratings systems was. In the episode, a woman seeking a higher rating chases social acceptance by trying to befriend people with higher rankings, and doing things that would improve her “image”. It turns out China had been thinking about exactly such a national reputation system, on the lines of credit scores and online community ratings, since 2014. The system, among other things, has been envisioned to allocate social “scores” to people based on data regarding their economic and social status. In its final form, it is also meant to rate businesses operating in China.
Currently, trial credit systems, operated by businesses such as Tencent and Alibaba, are functioning in China, and have begun blacklisting citizens based on their social credit scores. It was reported in May this year that based on this scoring system, authorities had blocked people from taking 11.14 million flights and 4.25 million high-speed train trips. These blacklists are based on individual scores that users of these platforms — that are essentially social media sites, payment hubs, food delivery apps, ride sharing apps all rolled into one — are assigned based on their usage. Data from banks and government departments regarding crimes, debts, etc are also used. A person having unpaid debt, for instance, would have a lower credit score than someone whose bills are paid on time. Similarly, a person who spent on several online games would be assumed to be less productive and would have a lower score than someone who had purchased baby food and diapers — indicating that they were a parent and, therefore, more responsible. One can also lose points for being friends on social media with people with low scores. According to Chinese government documents, the system aims to reinforce the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful”.
Linking rewards and punishments to social credit, and using private data as a tool of surveillance and control is a way of creating spaces of enforced obedience. The internet and digital infrastructures, which were once hailed as vehicles of freedom and community in spaces where none was afforded, have now been subverted by authoritarian states into becoming tools of coercive control. This dangerous trend of using social media and other digital tools to “keep an eye” on citizens and dissidents alike is fast becoming the defining trait of our times, putting us on our way to becoming the kind of society George Orwell portrayed in his novel, 1984.