Quotulatiousness

March 16, 2017

Origins of the Silk Road

Filed under: Asia, China, Europe, History, Middle East — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I’ve been quietly fascinated by the ancient Silk Road trading route spanning from the Middle East to China since I first heard about it as a kid. (The most recent book I read on the topic, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, blended bits of the history of the route with the activities of European spies in the area preceding the start of the First World War.) At Ars Technica, Annalee Newitz summarizes some recent work in Nature that pushes back the origins of the Silk Road more than two millennia:

The Silk Road was a series of ancient trading routes that spanned Asia, reaching as far as the Middle East and Europe. Self-organizing and vast, it fell under the control of various empires — but never for long. The polyglot civilizations of traders who lived along its routes are the subject of legends, and more recently the Silk Road lent its name to an infamous darknet market. Historians usually date the Silk Road from roughly the 200s to the 1400s. But a new study in Nature suggests the trade routes may be 2,500 years older than previously believed and its origins much humbler than the rich cities it spawned.

Historical accounts of the Silk Road begin in China in the 100s, when the Han Dynasty used its many routes to trade with the peoples of Central and South Asia. Han soldiers protected the roads and maintained regular outposts on them, allowing wealth and knowledge to flow across the continent. Monks wandering the Silk Road brought Buddhism from India to China, while merchants brought spices, gems, textiles, books, horses, and other valuables from one part of the continent to the other. Great Silk Road cities such as Chang’an (today called Xi’an) and Samarkand grew fat on wealth from the routes that passed outside their walls.

But Washington University in St. Louis anthropologist Michael Frachetti and his colleagues wondered how people traversed the many difficult stretches of the Silk Road that switchbacked through the mountains of Central Asia. Even though these routes weren’t urban or under the protection of soldiers, people used them all the time to pass between Asia and the Middle East. We can see where these travelers camped at over 600 archaeological sites in the mountains. Writing in Nature, Frachetti and his colleagues describe how they had to devise a new approach to track the routes people took between these camps.

The problem was that previous scholars assumed people took routes that resembled what a “least cost” algorithm would draw — essentially the easiest path. This is “largely effective in lowland zones where economic networks and mobility between urban centers are consistent with ease of travel,” the researchers write in their paper. But those algorithms won’t work in the mountains, on uneven terrain that was often barren.

NHK and CCTV did a 12-part documentary on the Silk Road, with beautiful theme music by Kitaro:

Published on 18 Sep 2013

Camels plodding across the desert, and a sense of timelessness evoked by Kitaro’s theme music… NHK devoted 17 years to the planning, shooting and production of The Silk Road, which unearthed trade routes linking long-lost civilizations of East and West. A landmark in broadcasting history, this series told the story of the rise and fall of ancient civilizations.
The NHK Tokushu and China’s CCTV documentary series The Silk Road began on April 7, 1980. The program started with the memorable scene of a camel caravan crossing the desert against the setting sun, with Kitaro’s music and a sense of timelessness. It was the start of an epic televisual poem.

The first journey described in the series began in Chang’an (now Xi’an), at the eastern end of the ancient route. On 450,000 feet of film, the NHK crew recorded the path westward to the Pamir Heights at the Pakistan border and this material was edited to make 12 monthly broadcasts. In response to viewers’ requests that the series be extended to cover the Silk Road all the way to Rome, sequels were made over the next 10 years. Seventeen years after the program was conceived, the project was completed.

1) The Glories of Ancient Chang-An
Chang-An – China’s old center. The journey begins from Chang-An, current Xi-an that was more than 1,000 years a capital in China, and the melting pot of international influences.

March 1, 2017

The different “flavours” of propaganda

Filed under: China, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Cory Doctorow on the various types of propaganda in use around the world:

Jonathan Stray summarizes three different strains of propaganda, analyzing why they work, and suggesting counter-tactics: in Russia, it’s about flooding the channel with a mix of lies and truth, crowding out other stories; in China, it’s about suffocating arguments with happy-talk distractions, and for trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos, it’s weaponizing hate, outraging people so they spread your message to the small, diffused minority of broken people who welcome your message and would otherwise be uneconomical to reach.

Stray cites some of the same sources I’ve written about here: Tucker Max’s analysis of Yiannopoulos’s weaponized hate and The Harvard Institute for Quantitative Science team’s first-of-its kind analysis of leaked messages directing the activities of the “50-cent army, which overwhelms online Chinese conversation with upbeat cheerleading (think of Animal Farm‘s sheep-bleating, or Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s quackspeak).

But I’d never encountered the work he references on Russian propaganda, by RAND scholar Christopher Paul, who calls Russian disinformation a “firehose of falsehood.” This tactic involves having huge numbers of channels at your disposal: fake and real social media accounts, tactical leaks to journalists, state media channels like RT, which are able to convey narrative at higher volume than the counternarrative, which becomes compelling just by dint of being everywhere (“quantity does indeed have a quality all its own”).

Mixing outright lies with a large dollop of truth is key to this tactic, as it surrounds the lies with a penumbra of truthfulness. This is a time-honored tactic, of course: think of the Christian Science Monitor‘s history of outstanding international coverage, accompanied by editorials about God’s ability to heal through prayer; or Voice of America‘s mixture of excellent reporting on (again) international politics and glaring silence on US crises (see also: Al Jazeera as a reliable source on everything except corruption in the UAE; the BBC World Service‘s top-notch journalism on everything except UK complicity in disasters like the Gulf War, etc).

In addition to this excellent taxonomy of propaganda, Stray proposes countermeasures for each strain: for Russia-style “firehoses of falsehood,” you have to reach the audience first with an alternative narrative; once the firehose is on, it’s too late. For Chinese quackspeak floods, you need “organized, visible resistance” in the streets. For pathetic attention-whores like Yiannopoulos, Stray says Tucker Max is right: you have to ignore him.

January 1, 2017

QotD: Currency Manipulation

Filed under: China, Economics, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the critiques of any trade deal of late is that there should be penalties for countries guilty of “currency manipulation.” The concern is that countries will devalue their currency in an effort to make their own exports cheaper to other nations while making it harder for other countries to export back to them. As an example, if the Chinese were to do something that cuts the value of the Yuan in half vs. the dollar, their products look very cheap to American consumers while American-produced goods suddenly look a lot more expensive to Chinese consumers.

I have two brief responses to this:

  1. I find it hilarious that anyone in the United States government, which has a Federal Reserve that has added nearly $2 trillion to its balance sheet in the service of cramming down the value of the dollar, can with a straight face accuse other nations of currency manipulation. In practice in today’s QEconomy, currency manipulation means another country is doing exactly what we are doing, but just doing it faster.
  2. As an American consumer, to such currency manipulation by other countries I say, Bring it On! If China wants to hammer its own citizens with higher prices and lower purchasing power just to subsidize lower prices for me, I am happy to let them do it. Yes, a few specific politically-connected export businesses lose revenues, but trying to prop them up is pure cronyism. Which is one reason I think Elizabeth Warren is a total hypocrite. The constituency of the poor and lower middle class she presumes to speak for are the exact folks who shop at Walmart and need very price break on everyday goods they can get. Senator Warren’s preferences for protectionist trade policies and a weak dollar will hurt these folks the most.

Warren Meyer, “Currency Manipulation”, Coyote Blog, 2015-05-26.

October 31, 2016

The History of Paper Money – II: Not Just Noodles – Extra History

Filed under: China, Economics, Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on Oct 8, 2016

How does paper money get introduced? Who has to lose their head to do so? And what does Marco Polo have to do with anything???

October 9, 2016

The Chinese Labour Corps in Russia During World War 1 I OUT OF THE ETHER

Filed under: China, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 8 Oct 2016

In another exiting episode of Out Of The Ether, Indy reads a great comment by a Russian fan about the situation of Chinese workers in Russia.

July 30, 2016

First Opium War – Lies – Extra History

Filed under: Britain, China, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 23 Jul 2016

Order the limited edition Opium Wars wall scroll before it leaves forever on July 27! http://bit.ly/2a138ur
James talks about our mistakes, and adds additional stories, for Federico da Montefeltro and the First Opium War!
____________

Quick story about Federico da Montefeltro: after losing an eye in a jousting accident, he ordered his doctor to cut a divot out of his nose so that his remaining eye had a better view and he could still fight in battles.

Now on to the Opium War! The Macartney expedition did not draw on the knowledge of Jesuit missionaries or even merchants who were familiar with Chinese court customs, because the British felt that a noble like Macartney was the only fitting representative. He didn’t come prepared to handle the kowtow, and he didn’t understand that the Chinese would have been more interested in British agricultural tech than they were in trinkets. James reads the disdainful letter which the Daoguang Emperor wrote to King George III in response to the embassy. There also happened to be a political upheaval in the Chinese palace at the time, so if the British had arrived sooner, they may have met with a different result and avoided the Opium Wars entirely. Once the war came to a head, it caused great division in Britain. Even though it was a war to sell illegal drugs, it was often recast as a war the Chinese provoked by insisting on the kowtow and treating other nations as vassals. Two traders by the names of James Matheson and William Jardine helped tip the scales for war because it helped their business, which had gotten a huge start in the opium trade. The Jardine-Matheson trading firm still exists today, and is a multibillion dollar company. Back in China, the British blockade of Canton’s port led to an odd first confrontation. A British ship called the Royal Saxon ran the blockade, so the British fired a warning shot to make it turn back. The Chinese, to prove they still controlled their sovereign waters, took this as an opportunity to challenge the blockade. Thus, their defense of a British smuggler led them into a war that, ironically, was about stopping British smugglers. The British official directing the war efforts, Charles Elliot, found himself in an awkward situation. He loved his country, but he morally objected to the British agenda in China. He tried to pave a moderate path, only to be fired and reviled as a failure. But after he left, the war truly got vicious. The British committed many atrocities in their campaign. They never sought to hold China, however, because their wars in India had taught them how impossible such an undertaking would be. Thus they settled on the unequal treaty. And as for Walpole… well, he started it, of course. Tea became such a large part of Britain’s economy because of the large tax levied on it. And who levied that tax? It was Walpole. He actually repealed an earlier, heavily resented tax and got political accolades for doing so, then introduced a much higher tax under a different name that flew under the radar even while it brought in hundreds of thousands of pounds for the government every year. The government’s reliance on tea for funding would later propel them to take such extraordinary measures to secure access to tea via Chinese trade. So who really started the Opium War? Well. It was Walpole.

July 23, 2016

The First Opium War – IV: Conflagration and Surrender – Extra History

Filed under: Britain, China, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 9 Jul 2016

The Chinese attempt to retake Canton by force failed. New British commanders took charge and would accept nothing less than total Chinese capitulation. They captured cities all the way up to Nanking, forcing the Emperor to negotiate. He had no choice but to accept an unequal treaty, kicking off a period of subservience to Europe which China still remembers today as the Century of Humiliation.
____________

Disappointed in the treaty, the Daoguang Emperor replaced Qishan with three new commanders. One of them wanted to buy time and modernize the army, but the Emperor insisted the British be repelled immediately. They assaulted Canton from across the river, firing cannons and sailing fire ships at the British fleet. Their efforts fell far short, and soon the British controlled the river again. The Chinese were forced to pay them an indemnity to leave Canton, but in their wake riots and looting plagued the city anyway. Elliot still led the British forces, but upon returning to Hong Kong, he learned that he was now being replaced. His replacements had no interest in the compromises he’d tried to establish. They pushed immediately towards Beijing. In each new fort they captured, they found evidence that the Chinese resistance had ironically been weakened by crippling opium addiction. As the Chinese attacks grew more desperate, British retaliation grew more brutal. Finally, they stood ready to seize Nanking. With it would come control of the Yangtze River on which all of China depended, so the Emperor was forced to negotiate. They had no bargaining power, and gave the British nearly everything they wanted: a huge indemnity, new trade ports, no more Hong monopoly, generous tariffs, consulates, and sovereignty over Hong Kong. The only two matters they refused were Christian missionaries and legalizing opium, but the latter would only lead to the Second Opium War with similar results. These “unequal treaties” would go down in Chinese history as the beginning of what the Communist government later called “The Century of Humiliation.” The spectre of this shame and forced subservience to European interests continues to shape politics today, as this history is often invoked or used as a rallying cry during dealings with the West.

July 20, 2016

First Opium War – III: Gunboat Diplomacy – Extra History

Filed under: Britain, China, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 2 Jul 2016

The British set up a blockade outside Canton, but one of their own private merchant ships tried to run through it. When the Chinese came to its defense, war began in earnest. Since the British had far superior firepower, they easily conquered Chuenpee and Chusan. Elliot and the Emperor’s new envoy, Qishan, soon sought a treaty and agreed on generous terms… which their overseers harshly rejected.
___________

The British responded to the Chinese halting their ships by erecting a blockade outside Canton. They fired a warning shot to turn back a private British merchant ship, the Royal Saxon, which attempted a blockade run, and the Chinese sent out their own navy to defend the runner. They were demolished. The British had better ships and better firepower. They made to discuss a treaty, but the Chinese refused to give in to the British demands regarding ownership of Hong Kong. The British moved on to capture Chusan, an island near Shanghai. Then a rumor prompted them to believe that China planned to strike against them, so they acted pre-emptively and kicked off the Battle of Chuenpee. Again they won, but the slaughter was so horrifying that Superintendent Elliot was glad to seek a peace treaty with the emperor’s envoy, Qishan. Finally Qishan agreed to give up Hong Kong, to give the British better trade status, in exchange for which Britain returned the land they’d taken. But Elliot’s supervisor back in London, Lord Palmerston, felt the treaty didn’t go far enough, especially since it didn’t re-establsih opium trading rights. And the Emperor found Qishan’s capitulation disgraceful, even threatened to have him hanged for it. What had looked like moderate wins for both sides suddenly threatened to fall apart.

July 11, 2016

First Opium War – II: The Righteous Minister – Extra History

Filed under: Britain, China, History, India — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 25 Jun 2016

Opium was illegal in China, but that didn’t stop the East India Company from manufacturing it for the black market. The Chinese emperor appointed an official, Lin Zexu, to stop it. He seized and burned huge opium caches held by British merchants, and ultimately ordered the British out of China entirely. Instead, they set up base on a barren island that would become known as Hong Kong.
____________

The tea trade flowing from China had left the British government in staggering debt. They had loaned huge amounts to the Honourable East India Company (EIC) to conquer India, and to pay their debts, the EIC turned that land into poppy fields and manufactured opium in huge quantities. Since China had banned the opium trade, the EIC set up a market in Calcutta (part of their Indian territory) and turned a blind eye to the black market traders who smuggled it into China. By 1839, over 6.6 million pounds of opium were being smuggled into China every year. The Chinese DaoGuang Emperor appointed an upright official named Lin Zexu to halt this opium trade. Lin orchestrated a massive campaign to arrest opium traders, force addicts into rehab, and confiscate pipes. He even laid siege to British warehouses when the merchants refused to turn over their opium supply, instead taking it all by force and burning it. The outraged merchants sought redress from their government, but although the Chief Superintendant Charles Elliot promised them restitution, the government never had any intention of paying them back. Amid the unrest, two British sailors brutally murdered a Chinese man. Lin Zexu demanded their extradition, but Elliot insisted on trying them aboard his ship and sentencing them himself. Lin Zexu had enough. He halted the British food supply and ordered the Portuguese to eject them from Macau. They retreated to a barren island off the coast (now known as Hong Kong). Since the island could not support them, Elliot petitioned the Chinese to sell them food again. He received no response. Then he sent men to collect it directly, but on their way back they were halted by the Chinese navy, and the first engagement of the Opium Wars began.

July 7, 2016

First Opium War – I: Trade Deficits and the Macartney Embassy – Extra History

Filed under: Britain, China, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 18 Jun 2016

The British Empire’s grasp on the Americas was slipping right at the time when they needed those resources most. The massive amounts of tea they imported from China had created a huge trade deficit, but the Chinese were reluctant to let any Europeans trade outside of the Canton port strictly controlled by the Hong. So Britain sent a formal embassy led by Earl George Macartney.
____________

In 1792, Great Britain had just come out of an expensive war that cost them their control over many of their colonies in North America. Other wars had also cost them their access to the silver mines of South America, which had been helping fund so much of their trade with the Qing Dynasty of China. European traders all wanted greater access to China, but the Emperor was wary of letting outsiders too far into his country and kept them all penned up at the port of Canton, which was strictly regulated by the Hong business group. A flourishing blackmarket trade grew, but Britain wanted more. One trader, acting on his own initiative, grew bold enough to approach Beijing and attempt to get a hearing over his trade grievances, but the Chinese considered this a huge breach of protocal and an offense to the Emperor. Britain had to do something, however: they imported over 10 million pounds of tea each year, equal to 10% of the government’s annual spending, and the fact that China did not have anywhere near as great an interest in British products meant that they were running an enormous trade deficit they could no longer sustain. The Crown appointed an official envoy, Earl George Macartney, with orders to end the Canton system, establish an embassy, and acquire rights to an island that would be under British control in the same way that the Porutuguese controlled Macao. The mission failed spectacularly. Although Macartney got permission to sail north and meet the Qianlong Emperor in his summer palace at Jehol, he refused to perform the traditional kowtow which was required upon meeting the Emperor. He presented gifts from the British court, but the Chinese interpreted these gifts as tribute, not trade enticements, and decided they had no need for nor interest in what he offered. Since he failed to get them to agree to any of his three requests, Britain wanted to find another way to address the trade imbalance with China. Soon, this would lead them to start bringing in opium.

May 24, 2016

The Age Of Warlords – China in WW1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: China, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:21

Published on 23 May 2016

China was in a constant period of unrest and turmoil after the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. None of the new leaders and presidents could really consolidate their power in China and a struggle between the different warlords. broke out. At the same time, China was eyeing a more prominent role within the international community and sent 150,000 workers to the Western Front as part of the Chinese Labour Corps.

April 2, 2016

QotD: The Anglo-Saxon encirclement strategy

Filed under: Britain, China, History, Military, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In retrospect the fight against Napoleon seems to have engendered a new strategic method, later employed against Germany in two world wars and against the Soviet Union thereafter. The French might call it the Anglo-Saxon encirclement strategy. Its essential aim was to avoid direct combat with a formidable enemy, or at least to limit engagement to a minimum. Instead of confronting one vast army with another – at Waterloo there were only 25,000 British troops – the Anglo-Saxon approach was to take on the big beast by assembling as many neighbourhood dogs and cats as possible, with a few squirrels and mice thrown in. With the obvious exception of the Western Front in the First World War, that is how the two world wars were fought, with an ever longer list of allies large, small and trivial (e.g. Guatemala, whose rulers could thereby expropriate the coffee plantations of German settlers), and that is how the Soviet Union was resisted after 1945, with what eventually became the North Atlantic Alliance. Like the anti-Napoleon coalition, Nato was – and remains – a ragbag of member states large and small, of vastly different capacity for war or deterrence, not all of them loyal all the time, though loyal and strong enough. Like the challenge to British diplomacy in the struggle against Napoleon, the great challenge to which American diplomacy successfully rose was to keep the alliance going by tending to the various political needs of its member governments, even those of countries as small as Luxembourg, whose rulers sat on all committees as equals, even though they could never field more than a single battalion of troops.

Now it is the turn of the Chinese, whose strength is still modest yet growing too rapidly for comfort, and who are inevitably provoking the emergence of a coalition against them; the members range in magnitude from India and Japan down to the Sultanate of Brunei, in addition of course to the US. Should they become powerful enough, the Chinese will force even the Russian Federation into the coalition regardless of the innate preferences of its rulers, for strategy is always stronger than politics, as it was for the anti-communist Nixon and the anti-American Mao in 1972. China cannot therefore overcome its inferiority to the American-led coalition by converting its economic strength into aircraft carriers and such, any more than Napoleon could have overcome strategic encirclement by winning one more battle. The exact repetition of Napoleon’s fatal error by imperial and Nazi Germany is easily explained: history teaches no lesson except that there is a persistent failure to learn its lessons. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese will do any better.

Edward Luttwak, “A Damned Nice Thing”, London Review of Books, 2014-12-18.

December 3, 2015

Korea: Admiral Yi – V: Martial Lord of Loyalty – Extra History

Filed under: Asia, China, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 24 Oct 2015

After his success at Myeongnyang, Yi began rebuilding the Korean navy and strengthening his partnership with the Chinese. But then, Toyotomi Hideyoshi died. Japan’s new leaders had no interest in continuing the war, but although they sued for peace, Korea now held the upper hand and was determined to punish the people who had committed so many massacres against their people. Yi and the Chinese fleet bottled up the Japanese at the fort in Suncheon. When the Japanese called for reinforcements, Yi interrupted them in Noryang Strait. Again they were outnumbered, 500 to 150, but the Chinese commander did not yet understand Yi’s long range style of warfare and immediately closed for close combat. Yi ordered his flagship to rescue their allies, and as soon as the Japanese recognized him, they focused fire on him. This allowed the Chinese, suddenly forgotten, to fire freely on them. The Japanese realized their error and tried to flee, but Yi would have none of it. Beating the war drum himself, he urged his ships to chase the Japanese – to punish them for all the slaughter they brought to Korea. It was then that he was struck by a fatal gunshot. Before he died, he ordered his son and nephew to command the battle for him. They dressed in his armor to hide his death from the troops and continued beating the dream. Together, they carried the day – only for Yi’s tragic death to be revealed at the moment of victory. But although Yi did not live to see it, 300 Japanese ships were captured and destroyed that day and the rest of their invading force was rounded up soon after. For his tireless service, his brilliant leadership, and his unwavering devotion to Korea, Yi was given the posthumous title of Chungmugong, the Martial Lord of Loyalty.

October 18, 2015

Playboy‘s biggest market today

Filed under: Business, China, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Colby Cosh on why the Playboy brand is so attractive to the Chinese market:

Playboy was once an important cultural force; and what are Chinese men and women buying when they buy jewelry or clothing with the Playboy bunny on it? They are buying a small stake in an anti-puritan, worldly vision of the good life. Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy philosophy,” which he used to set out in windy essays sandwiched between the pictorials, is still considered good for a laugh decades later. But every magazine does express a philosophy, whether or not it chooses to yammer on about doing so, and Playboy’s epicureanism was a powerful one. It practically amounted to a guarantee to the customer: if you bought Playboy, the only uplift you were at risk of encountering would involve lingerie, not morality.

When you were done being titillated by an issue of the magazine, the ads and the articles about stereos and cigars and cocktails were there to linger as an aftertaste, making a subtle but sharp imprint on one’s endocrine system. It is hard for us to appreciate what this kind of thing means in a strongly collectivist, egalitarian society. People who visited the old Soviet bloc, and who saw what blue jeans or heavy-metal cassettes did to the brains of the people there, will have some idea. It is an enigma of 20th-century history: stuff that seems trivial to a Western consumer somehow encodes a message of choice and private aspiration that can never be expressed as powerfully as an explicit proposition.

October 11, 2015

Take all the negative aspects of social media … and then tie in your political and financial activities

Filed under: China, Government, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Welcome to China’s idea of the perfect social media environment. Charles Stross describes the proposal and its likely impact on Chinese life:

So, let’s start by synopsizing the Privacy Online News report. It’s basically a state-run universal credit score, where you’re measured on a scale from 350 to 950. But it’s not just about your financial planning ability; it also reflects your political opinions. On the financial side, if you buy products the government approves of your credit score increases: wastes of time (such as video games) cost you points. China’s main social networks feed data into it and you can lose points big-time by expressing political opinions without prior permission, talking about history (where it diverges from the official version — e.g. the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square — hey, I just earned myself a negative credit score there!), or saying anything that’s politically embarrassing.

The special social network magic comes into play when you learn that if your friends do this, your score also suffers. You can see what they just did to you: are you angry yet? Social pressure is a pervasive force and it’s going to be exerted on participants whether they like it or not, by friends looking for the goodies that come from having a high citizen score: goodies like instant loans for online shopping, car rentals without needing a deposit, or fast-track access to foreign travel visas. Also, everyone’s credit score is visible online, making it easy to ditch those embarrassingly ranty cocktail-party friends who insist on harshing your government credit karma by not conforming.

The gamification of social conformity, overseen by an authoritarian government and mediated by nudge theory, is a thing of beauty and horror; who needs cops with nightsticks to beat up dissidents when their friends and family will give them a tongue-lashing on behalf of the government for the price of a discount off a new fridge?

But don’t worry, I could make it a whole lot worse.

The first notable point about this system is that it’s an oppressive system that runs at a profit. Consider the instant no-collateral loans for online shopping: the Chinese system only grants these to folks who are a good credit bet. The debt will be repaid. Meanwhile it goes into providing a Keynesian stimulus for the productive side of the economy. And it rewards people for political right-thinking. What’s not to like?

Governments love nudge theory because it offers a cheap shortcut to enforcing social policy, even when the social policy in question is utterly broken. Paying a cop costs money — not just their salary and the cost of their uniform, but the station they work out of, the support personnel who keep the police force operating (janitors, human resources, vehicle maintenance), and the far less tangible political cost of being seen to wield a big stick and force people not to do what they want to do (or to do things that you want them to). Using big data to give folks a credit score, then paying them bright and shiny but essentially cost-free bonuses if they do what you want? That’s priceless. You may not be able to track folks who like to toke up directly (if it’s illegal in your jurisdiction), but you can penalize them for hanging out with known cannabis users and buying paraphernalia. More to the point, you can socially isolate users and get their family to give them grief without the unpalatable excesses (and negative headlines) of no-knock raids and cops kicking down the wrong door and shooting children by mistake. One may ask whether the medical marijuana movement and decriminalization pressure would have got off the ground in the United States if a citizenship scoring system with downvotes for pot users was in place. Or whether emancipatory rights movements could exist at all in a society that indirectly penalizes people for “wrong lifestyle choices” rather than relying on imperfectly applied but very visible and hateful boots and nightsticks.

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