In another example of fact mirroring fiction (and vice versa), the Chinese Government has been experimenting since 2014 with a social credit program that rewards good behavior and punishes bad. Next year, it becomes mandatory. On hearing this news, many drew a parallel to the “Nosedive” episode from the Netflix series Black Mirror. The comparison was understandable. Both feature a universal system where individuals are assigned a behavior-based score has real-life consequences. And it is indeed ominous when a government known for being “Big Brother” is unveiling such a program. But this misses the point of Nosedive. Black Mirror creator and writer Charlie Brooker wasn’t worried about Big Brother. He was worried about you and I – and our behavior in the grips of such a program.
In Brooker’s world, there was no overseer of the program. It was an open market of social opinion. If people didn’t like you, you got docked points. If they did, you got extra points. It was like a Yelp for everyone, everywhere. And just like a financial credit score, your social credit score was factored into what kind of house you could buy, what type of car you could rent and what seat you got on an airplane.
If we strip emotion out of it, this doesn’t sound like a totally stupid idea. We like ratings. They work wonderfully as a crowd-sourced reference in an open market. And every day I’m reminded that there are a lot of crappy people out there. It sounds like this might be a plausible solution. It reminds me of a skit the comedian Gallagher used to do in the 80’s about stupid drivers. Everyone would get one of those suction dart guns. If you saw a jerk on the road, you could just shoot a dart at his car. Once he had collected a dozen or so darts, the cops could give him a ticket for being an idiot. This is the same idea, with digital technology applied.
But the genius of Brooker and the Black Mirror is to take an aspect of technology which actually makes sense, factor in human behavior and then take it to the darkest place possible. And that’s what he did in Nosedive. It’s about a character named Lacie – played by Bryce Dallas Howard – who’s idea of living life is trying to make everyone happy. Her goal is immediately quantified and given teeth by a universal social credit score – a la Yelp – where your every action is given a score out of 5. This gets rolled up into your overall score. At the beginning of the episode, Lacie’s score is respectable but a little shy of the top rung scores enjoyed by the socially elite.
But here’s the Black Mirror twist. It turns out you can’t be elite and still be a normal person. It’s another side of the social influencer column I wrote last week. The only way you can achieve the highest scores is to become obsessed with them. Lacie – who is a pretty good person – finds the harder she tries, the faster her score goes into a nose dive – hence the name of the episode.
As Brooker explains, “Everyone’s a little tightened and false, because everyone’s terrified of being marked down – the consequences of that are unpleasant. So, basically, it’s the world we live in.”
China is taking more of a big brother/big data approach. Rather than relying exclusively on a social thumbs up or thumbs down, they’re crunching data from multiple sources to come up a algorithmically derived score. High scores qualify you for easy loans, better seats on planes, faster check ins at hotels and fast-tracked Visa applications. Bad scores mean you can’t book an airline ticket, get that promotion you’ve been hoping for or leave the country. Rogier Creemers – an academic from Leiden University who is following China’s implementation of the program – explains, “I think the best way to understand the system is as a sort of bastard love child of a loyalty scheme.”
Although participation in the program is still voluntary (until 2020) an article on Wired published in 2017 hinted that Chinese society is already falling down the same social rabbit hole envisioned by Booker. “Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch.”
Personally, the last thing I would want is the government of China tracking my every move and passing judgement on my social worthiness. But even without that, I’m afraid Charlie Brooker would be right. Social credit would become just one more competitive hierarchy. And we’d do whatever it takes – good or bad – to get to the top.