Much to my own surprise, here we are again so soon after my last posting.
That’s because my son brought a topic to my attention that I found so fascinating, so interesting, so potentially awful I felt compelled to take a break from my currently fast-forwarding existence to comment.
In all my many years of pondering about the madness and delusions of crowds, and the politicians they allow to stampede them hither and yon, I don’t think I have ever encountered a more interesting or controversial… idea… concept…form of institutionalized insanity.
On the one hand, it seems a simple concept. Yet, it is an onion with almost uncountable layers.
The topic, which I had not heard of before today, revolves around something called “Social Credit”.
Appropriately, the Chinese are taking the lead in building a social credit system, but signs of this hydra began appearing a couple of decades ago in the United States when mandatory community service was introduced into the educational curriculum.
I am referring, of course, to the requirement that you must “volunteer” some of your free time to the equivalent of helping old people across streets. If you choose to ignore said requirement, you are unable to graduate.
Well, the Chinese are taking that concept to a whole new level.
As we saddle up and hit the trail, I am listening to I’m Going Home by Ten Years After, live at Woodstock. When I go back to listen to these classics, the blues parentage of rock and roll becomes clear and undeniable.
Readers of any duration will recall past comments I have made about Tomas Sowell’s theory “A Conflict of Visions”, his way of explaining why most people will invariably fall on different sides of almost every socio-political issue.
To wit, a person who supports organizations in “saving the whales” will most likely also be pro-gun control, alarmed about global warming, in favor of punitive levels of progressive taxation in order to support a higher level of entitlement spending, cheerlead for the BLM movement, etc, etc.
Meanwhile, the neighbor they have blacklisted because he or she voted for Trump, will be anti-gun control, in favor of an organized immigration process, in favor of a flat tax and so on.
According to Sowell’s theory, the dividing line between these individuals is that the people in the first example believe their fellow citizens can be led, cajoled, fined, intimidated or, if all else fails, hammered into becoming something approaching perfect people.
The second group understands that human behavior will always fall within a certain range of possibilities. The role of society, therefore, is to set reasonable perimeters for that range - only using the coercive power of the state as a last resort when behaviors approach destructive extremes.
This second group, who we might think of as believers in “laissez faire,” would use science to establish the amount of alcohol one might consume safely before driving. So, maybe a drink an hour for most people, then leave it at that.
By contrast, the first group, consisting of what we might term “meddlers”, will set the alcohol tolerance level at zero and impose draconian punishments if a person has even a single drink before climbing behind the wheel.
I felt compelled to mention Sowell’s theory again today because the construct of “social credits” cements into place a platform which allows the meddlers to use big data and the latest technologies to systematically torment the citizenry until they fall lock-step in line with what they believe constitutes the ideal human.
Be afraid, be very afraid, because this is the edge of a very slippery slope.
Do Right, or Else
The Chinese social credit system, which has been in the works since 2015, is scheduled to be rolled out in two years time. Which is basically the day after tomorrow in our hyperloop world.
Stripped down to its core, the Chinese government is putting into place a massive interwoven database that gathers information about a citizen’s every action, then ranks those actions to create a social credit “score”.
Refuse to help the old person across the street, it dings your score. Get caught littering on the sidewalk by a face recognition camera, it dings your score. Fail to pay a bill on time, or get a parking ticket and down your score goes.
And that is just the obvious stuff.
Going even further to force the citizenry to fall in line with the meddler’s notions of what constitutes a perfect citizen, the scoring system also penalizes actions such as spending too much time on the internet or, heavens forbid, criticizing the government in an online posting.
Conversely, activities such as getting married, or volunteering for the military, or showing up to participate in local government programs all boost a person’s score.
By tying together the many massive databases available to an all powerful government - for example purchase data from Alibaba, China’s largest online retailer, - the scoring system also rewards or penalizes based on how people spend their money.
Buying diapers reflects personal responsibility, so a thumbs up on your score. Buying too many video games, considered an anti-social pastime, thumbs down. The system will, no doubt, drill down even further to the point where buying environmentally safe diapers gets an extra point, while buying a violent video game gets an extra demerit.
Perks and Penalties
Those who fall in line with the system will find themselves rewarded at every turn. On checking into a hotel, they won’t need to leave a credit card to guarantee the charges. Likewise, they won’t have to leave deposits when renting cars.
If they want a loan, they will get it quickly, and at the most favorable rate. Which, when you think about it, makes sense and is not that dissimilar than the FICO scores used to price credit in the U.S.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Dating services will highlight the profiles of people with higher credit scores, and, in time, refuse to post profiles of those with lower scores. In a world where online dating services are increasingly how people meet mates, the government could ultimately decide whether you have a family. Because, online dating services aside, how many women would want to marry a guy with a poor social credit score?
Those who work their score up will find more job opportunities, at better pay. Those with a low score, not so much.
For the non-compliers, things quickly deteriorate. For example, if your score is low enough, you won’t be allowed to travel abroad, or fly on a domestic airline, or even get a job. Quoting the UK’s Independent news service.
The system has been used to already block nine million people with "low scores" from purchasing domestic flights. While still in the preliminary stages the system has been used to ban people and their children from certain schools, prevent low scorers from renting hotels, using credit cards, and blacklist individuals from being able to procure employment.
The consequences, in my view, are almost impossible to fully comprehend.
On the “positive” side, there is little question that such a sophisticated, omniscient system permeating literally every aspect of society will help to smooth many rough spots in how the citizenry acts.
In China, I understand that spitting is a rather common practice. An acquaintance of mine who taught English in China related that students would regularly just hack one up and let it fly onto the classroom floor. With this system in place, no more.
However, the negatives have to overwhelming. To name just a few that come to mind.
The end of debate. In each debate, the participants will first assess which side of a debate they should weigh in on, to wit which side is considered socially acceptable, and which side will get them demerits. No one will be willing to take the controversial side. Ergo, if the meddlers say the earth is flat, then the earth will be flat. Or, the globe warming, period.
The end of innovation. In the evolution of technology there are invariably seeds of creative destruction. Under a social credit system, the individuals setting the algorithms will be entrenched members of the power elite, or their minions. As such they will find ways to curb any innovations that threaten the equivalent of their buggy whip factories.
Corruption. Given the benefits of a top rating, in no time at all a cottage industry of tech insiders within the government will spring up to jury rig scores, for fees or for favors.
The end of the individual. Just about everyday, one encounters someone with an obvious case of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). As in, they feel that the world isn’t paying them nearly enough attention so they tattoo their faces, or stick metal rods through their noses, or die their hair some exotic color? Under the social credit system, that’s just not going to happen. And neither are all the other non-state approved forms of expressing oneself. And down the slippery slope we go towards a world of complete conformity.
The crushing of youth. When people are young, they are capable of all manner of reckless acts and damn the consequences. And so, at the critical age of experimentation, the young will either shut up and get in line, or they will let their hormones lead them to open acts of defiance… and end up like so many young college grads these days, with zero money, bad credit and a six figure debt they can’t shake.
The creation of a caste system. Just as has long been the case in India, over time society will be divided into the socially acceptable, and those who are to be shunned. At a certain low level - when you have no further to fall - the lower castes will create their own version of a society, trading among themselves in order to survive. Pushed hard enough, and with next to nothing to lose, a revolt is not out of the questions.
In my opinion, George Orwell himself couldn’t have come up with a better construct than a social credit system to herald in a dystopian future.
Worse, I don’t see how it doesn’t become reality in China and, in time, many other countries as well.
I say that, because it is the meddlers who are most likely to be attracted to the siren song of government power. Invariably, they will come to believe that implementing a social credit system will be the very best way of beating the deplorables into shape. You know, for the “greater good”.
Outside of China, the social credit system may evolve slowly, but I fear it will also happen steadily.
And with that, I will bid you farewell and happy trails from roughly in the middle of nowhere, in the Argentine outback, where, knock on wood, no sign of a social credit system yet exists.