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.