When Facebook was granted an updated patent this summer, it was easy to draw parallels between the firm’s social currency and the prophetic technology that features in Cory Doctorow’s first novel ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’. In the novel, Doctorow describes an alternate reality where technology has solved all of humanities issues. Death has been eliminated, and people live a life of plenty. In his discordant utopia, however, traditional currencies have been replaced by a form of social capital that allows everyone to be nicely pigeonholed (with respect or popularity points that are instantly accessible via an Internet that resides in the novel’s inhabitants’ minds).
The connection between Facebook’s patent and Doctorow’s ten-year-old concept of an all-encompassing social currency is easily noticed. In particular, because the patent for Facebook’s new software specifically makes mention of using social connections to help loan companies decide a person’s credit eligibility. A frightening prospect.
Now, proving again that society is moving in the direction of Doctorow predictive novel, China has announced a pilot project for a kind of social credit system that it hopes to enrol its entire population in by 2020. The pilot is being carried out by the financial arm of China’s biggest online shopping company Alibaba, and China’s compulsory future social credit system ‘Sesame Credit’ is being trialed on some of its 400 million Chinese customers.
In the West, we are accustomed to credit ratings allowing banks, insurance firms and retailers to make decisions about our eligibility. In China, Sesame Credit steps this up a notch by using information taken from social media, shopping habits, and various other data sets (the algorithm is not officially on the table yet) to create a personal social credit rating that compares Chinese citizens to one another. The state-approved pilot uses algorithms to create a single numerical value that helps companies to make decisions – like whether to take a deposit – for example. A higher rating means an easier existence in society, and promotes a self-regulating social system that exasperates class divide and encourages elitism.
Also part of the pilot credit system is China’s most popular dating service, Baihe. The matchmaking service joining ranks with Sesame to incorporate the social score into people’s dating prospects. Annoyingly (and perfectly in line with a recurring symptom of the Orwellian epidemic sweeping the globe), the pilot scheme is being warmly accepted by its participants. Another example, of the alienated way in which people can be easily coerced into both sharing every detail of their lives, and comparing, judging and discriminating against each other in return for an easier ride.
Here at home, Facebook already relies on users’ willingness to happily hand over large chunks of private data, and it’s August patent should ring alarm bells enough to remind you that China’s prototype social competition is also heading for our shores. Earlier this year, the inventor of the famous deep web marketplace Silk Road was prosecuted and jailed, due in part to evidence gained by the FBI from Ross Ulbricht’s Facebook page. Dread Pirate Roberts (Ulbricht anonymous alter-ego) is known to have been obsessively protective of his Identity – even creating various opsec fail safes to protect him and his associates from being caught by the intelligence agencies. In the end, however, in spite of all of his efforts, Ulbricht fell to the social machine. Leaving clues central to his demise on Facebook, and creating a case study example of how easily people can be manipulated by social media into revealing too much – despite their actual wishes.
In keeping with this pattern, Chinese people are taking to the social currency like ducks to water. Proudly displaying their Sesame rating on their mobile phone to anybody that is willing to look. One feature even allows people to guess whether friends have better or worse ratings, revealing of the sharing nature of the rating system that the Chinese government wants people to accept. ‘It is very convenient,’ said one young woman when asked about it. ‘We booked a hotel last night using Sesame Credit, and we didn’t need to leave a cash deposit.’
Unfortunately, the reality is that these types of credit systems only help to further divide society into classes. Let us take for instance the example of the young woman who did not need to leave a deposit. Having the money to afford a deposit likely means a better Sesame score, leading to the convenience of booking without a deposit. This, despite the fact that the person likely had the economic liquidity to pay a deposit anyway. Being slightly poorer means a lower Sesame score, and likely means exclusion from the benefit of a no-deposit booking. Sad, because it is the poorer class of people that actually stands to profit most from not having to free up their more limited resources upfront (and despite the fact that they have no intention of not honouring the booking).
Perhaps my concerns about Sesame credits are unjustified, and the Chinese government actually plans to reward people with more limited funds (that are deemed to be ‘trustworthy’) by also allowing them to book without a deposit. It is safe to assume, after all, that towing the party line will have a positive effect. An incredible optimist might even fantasize that Sesame will choose instead to charge those that can afford a deposit – Sesame’s algorithms rightly deciding that due to the subjects upwardly-mobile economic status – a change of plans is infinitely more likely to occur. I highly doubt it.
By 2020, China hopes to rate people not only on economic worth but political worth and the worth of their preferred social contacts. Are you vocal about your support of China’s regime? Up goes your score. Are you always on time for work, and never late to pay fines? Up goes your score. Have you turned on your neighbour, and alerted the police to their use of a VPN to get around the Great Firewall? Up goes your score. On the flip side, daring to speak out against China’s regime will likely lead to a severe reduction of a citizen’s social standing. With the possibility of being declared a political outlaw (and being instantly cut off from society) now well on its way to becoming a reality for the people of China.