In 2003, digital rights activist Cory Doctorow published his science fiction novel ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’. In it, he describes his vision of a society where death has been eliminated, and people live a life of plenty. In this un-dystopian world, money has been replaced by social capital. Respect or popularity points (which are instantly accessible via an Internet that resides in the novel’s inhabitants’ minds) are the only currency of value.
Like other science fiction novels that attempt to predict future changes in society (1984 and Brave New World come to mind) Doctorow’s vision has not yet become a reality. Like its more pessimistic predecessors, however, some elements of his book are now coming true – in particular Doctorow’s concept of social capital.
This week, the US patent office granted Facebook an update to an original patent that it purchased from Friendster in 2010. Originally invented by Christopher Lunt, the technology allows Facebook to track how people are connected on its network. On the whole, the reasons for the updated patent appear to be pretty un-nefarious, pertaining mainly to stopping users from emailing and spamming people with whom they are not legitimately connected. One of the listed uses, however, strongly brings Cory Doctorow’s first novel to mind,
‘In a fourth embodiment of the invention, the service provider is a lender. When an individual applies for a loan, the lender examines the credit ratings of members of the individual’s social network who are connected to the individual through authorized nodes. If the average credit rating of these members is at least a minimum credit score, the lender continues to process the loan application. Otherwise, the loan application is rejected.’
The idea of using social contacts as a basis for deciding the validity of a loan application is not only abhorrent, but ought to be illegal. At its core resides a ruthlessly capitalist and elitist mentality that given legitimacy can only lead to some kind of digital apartheid. In a world where befriending the wrong person online can directly affect your ability to get a loan or mortgage, poorer people will naturally become excluded.
No longer will people send friend requests based on whom they want to stay in contact. Instead, because of the fear of repercussions, friend selection will be carefully based on economic reasons. The inevitable result of which will be online marginalization, and the crystallization of an ever-increasing economic divide.
If a person chooses to be friends with poorer people, it does not necessarily mean that he or she has a bad credit score. Of course, anybody with a good credit rating could pretty easily contest a loan company’s decision. For this reason, discrimination will most likely happen to people on the cusp of being eligible for credit, which the software decides have too many poor friends to be considered ‘upwardly mobile’.
On the other hand, estimates show that in the US there are around 51 million people who have extremely limited or no access to banking. According to legal technology firm SmartUp Legal, Facebook’s software might, in fact, be most harmful to those people – by increasing the chance that they become victims of other bloodthirstier schemes – like payday loans.
As awful as the prospect of this technology sounds, the reality is that big data can save firms a lot of money. For this reason, it is likely that these types of algorithms will be welcomed by banks and loan companies who will happily add it to their loan application review process. Yet another case that demonstrates the dangers of giving companies unfettered access to our digital footprints.