When Facebook was granted an updated patent this summer, it was easy to draw parallels between the firm’s version of 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In his discordant utopia, however, traditional currencies have been replaced by a form of social capital that allows everyone to be nicely pigeonholed (with "respect" or "popularity" points that are instantly accessible via an Internet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 perceived. 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 enroll 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 takes this up a notch by using information taken from social media, shopping habits - and various other data sets - 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 exacerbates class divide and encourages elitism.
Also involved in the pilot credit system is China’s most popular dating service, Baihe. The matchmaking service is 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. Yet another example of the alienated way in which people can easily be coerced into both sharing every detail of their lives - while 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. Its August patent should ring enough alarm bells to remind you that China’s prototype social competition is likely also headed for our shores, eventually.
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's pseudonymous alter-ego) is known to have been obsessively protective of his identity - even creating various opsec fail-safes to protect himself 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. He left clues central to his demise on Facebook, and created a perfect case study example that demonstrates how easily (even the most paranoid) people can be manipulated by social media into revealing too much - despite their inner desires.
Ducks to Water
In keeping with this pattern, Chinese people are taking to the social currency like ducks to water. Proudly displaying their Sesame Credit rating on their mobile phone for anybody that is willing to look. One feature even allows people to guess whether friends have better or worse ratings - revealing of the frightening sharing nature of the rating system that the Chinese government wants its 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 Credit score, which in turn leads to the convenience of being able to book without a deposit. This, despite the fact that the person likely had the economic liquidity to pay a deposit anyway.
Being slightly poorer likely means a lower Sesame score, and probably means exclusion from the benefit of a no-deposit booking. This is a sad state of affairs - because it is the poorer class of people - that actually stand to profit the most from not having to free up their more limited resources upfront.
Perhaps my concerns about Sesame credits are unfounded, 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. Only time will tell.
An incredible optimist might fantasize that the Sesame system will instead choose only to charge citizens who can afford a deposit (Sesame’s algorithms rightly deciding that due to that citizen's upwardly-mobile economic status a change of plans is infinitely more likely to occur). I highly doubt that is the case.
What it is safe to assume, is that towing the party line will have a positive effect on Sesame Credit scores and social mobility.
By 2020, China hopes to rate people not only on economic worth - but also on 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 neighbor, and alerted the police about their use of a VPN to get around the Great Firewall? Up goes your score. Do you only interact with others that also do these things? 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.
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