In his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde wrote that: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” In today’s digital world it’s debatable which is imitating which. In an era of fake news and computer-generated social media influencers, the lines between our real and cyber lives have blurred.
Take the Netflix series Black Mirror. It’s an accurate observation of our Black Mirror lives and it skirts uncomfortably close to the bone. There’s an episode called Nose Dive, which delves into a world where everybody gives one another a “social rating”. Each time you cross paths with friends, or even strangers, you simply point your phone at that person and rate him or her out of five stars on the profile that appears on your screen.
This concept of rating people has already become part of our daily lives, whether its rating your Uber driver after a ride or rating an app you’ve downloaded.
Black Mirror takes the concept on a chilling future trajectory where that social rating is used to give you preferential access to services or an elite social circle. In the episode the main character tries to get on to a flight but she doesn’t qualify for the last seat because of her social rating score. She gets upset and the more she raises her voice, the faster her social rating drops as people around her react to her outburst by rating her with progressively lower scores. She is eventually removed from the airport by security, for which she receives additional penalty scores. Her social ranking plunges downwards until she becomes a digital pariah; even friends snub her to protect their rankings.
Sounds like dystopian science fiction but the reality is closer than you think.
China has already embarked on a social credit system, which dovetails its ambitious grand plan to capture all its citizens on a facial recognition system by 2020. With Augmented Reality (AR) technology, facial recognition makes it faster and more effective to track known felons than using fingerprints. The police force has been equipped with AR eyewear and, should a suspect’s face appear on the system, police are immediately alerted via a message that appears on their eyewear.
The Chinese social credit system is called Zhima Credit and already appears as an app as part of the extensive Alipay mobile payments ecosystem: a system that is designed to make your life easier and seamless. But since it’s designed to engulf every aspect of your life, adding a social credit system – that the government has access to – requires a strategic alliance between technology companies and government and it’s mutually beneficial.
The Communist Party motivates that the social credit system is an effort to nudge people towards good social behaviour, ranging from energy conservation to charity work. The more good you do, such as paying your traffic fines, up go your Zhima points. If you don’t pay your fines, points are deducted. Similar automotive demerit systems are already in place in many countries around the world and will soon be implemented in South Africa.
Blacklisting people with bad debt is already entrenched, so the foundations of a social credit system are being built. China has just found a way to scale it in the most effective way – via our digital, Black Mirror lives. We already sacrifice our privacy for coffee and free WiFi, so is another “opt-in” decision that much of an issue?
For the more than 200 million Alipay users who have opted into Zhima Credit, the lure is clear: your personal data will magically open doors for you.
Just like the Black Mirror episode, a Chinese car rental company allows people with social credit scores of more than 650 to rent a car without a deposit, while people with scores of more than 750 can skip the security check line at Beijing Airport.
In Wired Lucy Peng, CEO of Ant Financial (one of eight tech companies approved by the People’s Bank of China to develop its own credit scoring system), is quoted as saying that Zhima Credit “will ensure the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction”.
The similarities with Black Mirror are chilling, as are the means to manipulate people’s scores. Zhima Credit has already “helped” courts punish more than 1.2 million defaulters, all of whom opened their app to find their scores had plunged. They had just joined the new digital underclass.
I believe a social credit system is the gateway to a dystopian future, but I can’t help wondering how demerit points on a South African social credit system would affect the behaviour of the Vicky Mombergs and Mduduzi Mananas among us.
The thought lingers on my mind.
Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com
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