What do you do when the near future is so much stranger than fiction?
Of all the surprises of writing about a dystopian society is when the real world tends to agree with you.
The backstory is simple: the novel I’m working on (Society or The Invisible Hand: I haven’t picked a name yet) revolves around a world where every single human being is scored for their value to society.
When I started scribbling my thoughts, they came out in the form of a story. I imagined a world where everything,down from where you lived and worked, to whether you could get into the club or not, was governed by this number on your head.
This is not a radically original idea. In a sense, it’s already happening.
You have companies like Experian running credit-scoring operations down to the most granular details you can extract from a bank account.
And then you have the likes of Facebook, where complex algorithms weight our social interaction patterns to decide who and how many people see our updates today.
And then you have the fundamental human need to size up a person in conversation, to establish the web of who-knows-who and what-do-you-do the moment you meet someone so you know exactly where you stand with them.
To me it seems only natural that at some point these systems will tip into each other and collide. Some Silicon Valley outfit will build this and sell it to the world as the best thing since sliced bread. Some Silicon Valley investor will bite. The entire story (out soon) is simply a logical conclusion to today’s trends. Perhaps, like David Egger’s the Circle, my vision of it is a bit of an exaggeration — but only a bit.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that China had actually built — or started on — the kind of system I was imagining on paper. In 2010, the local government of Suining (a county north of Shanghai) apparently started awarding points for ‘behavior’ — things like winning an award — and deducting points for things like getting in jail. People who scored well apparently got all sorts of perks.
The whole thing surfaced on our side of the Internet when the Independent, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC ran stories (from September 2016 to November 2016) about China’s plans to build what they called ‘a 21st century police state’.
The government hasn’t announced exactly how the plan will work — for example, how scores will be compiled and different qualities weighted against one another. But the idea is that good behaviour will be rewarded and bad behaviour punished, with the Communist Party acting as the ultimate judge.
Harnessing the power of big data and the ubiquity of smartphones, ecommerce and social media in a society where 700 million people live large parts of their lives online, the plan will also vacuum up court, police, banking, tax and employment records. Doctors, teachers, local governments and businesses could additionally be scored by citizens for their professionalism and probity.
— The Independent
Shades of Orwell here? China does have a Ministry of Truth.
By 2020, everyone in China will be enrolled in a vast national database that compiles fiscal and government information, including minor traffic violations, and distils it into a single number ranking each citizen.
That system isn’t in place yet. For now, the government is watching how eight Chinese companies issue their own “social credit” scores under state-approved pilot projects.
One of the most high-profile projects is by Sesame Credit, the financial wing of Alibaba. With 400 million users, Alibaba is the world’s biggest online shopping platform. It’s using its unique database of consumer information to compile individual “social credit” scores.
Users are encouraged to flaunt their good credit scores to friends, and even potential mates. China’s biggest matchmaking service, Baihe, has teamed up with Sesame to promote clients with good credit scores, giving them prominent spots on the company’s website.
“A person’s appearance is very important,” explains Baihe’s vice-president, Zhuan Yirong. “But it’s more important to be able make a living. Your partner’s fortune guarantees a comfortable life.”
The 2010 project was a failure. Even state-owned newspapers criticized the system. The Beijing Times, interestingly, compared it to the “good citizen” certificates Japan issued to Chinese citizens during Japan’s wartime occupation of China (1930’s to 1940’s).
Nevertheless, China is, as far as I know, on track to have this up by 2020 — both in my story and in the real world.
And it really does seem inevitable, doesn’t it? After all, we ARE obsessed with quantifying ourselves. Everything from IQ tests to credit scores to follower counts make up a very real part of what we identify as today. Essentially, we face a future where the quality of our lives are algorithmically determined — and we won’t be resenting it: we’d have marched head-first into this future.
There are some interesting tangents of thought here involving PRISM, surveillance and Facebook essentially being George Orwell’s wet dream, but let’s save that for later. As it stands, we love us our quantification. Reebok’s innocent ‘Be More Human’ experience sounds increasingly ironic now.
I spent a few wonderful months researching the tech needed to make this work, at least in theory. In my head I could see where the story might fit: there was George Orwell’s 1984, Egger’s the Circle, and somewhere in the shadow of their company, Society.
Fingers crossed that China doesn’t beat me to it.