The Netflix show Black Mirror is appealing because it is about a world that could easily pass for our own. It shows inventions that are not too far off from the new technology we see being introduced every day. Who would have thought Apple would invent
Sometimes too gruesome to watch, sometimes vanilla enough for us to laugh, this Netflix series has caused an understandable buzz among scientists and viewers alike. How far away are we from this dystopian vision of a future that is often portrayed in Charlie Brooker’s creation?
Maybe not as far as we think.
What if there were a country where a very specific episode of Black Mirror is coming true this very moment? In the season’s 3
In 2014 China put forward an idea of Social Credit System or Social Citizen Score. In short, the government would analyze everybody’s online activities – social media, finances — analyze their social and economic status, and give scores accordingly. Sounds innocent enough! Who doesn’t like collecting points and the idea of leveling up! The psychological study of rewards has gathered significant interest in the past century.
Every individual is driven by extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Ideally, we would do everything from our own internal motivations without being monitored or judged. Outside motivation has been a feature within the educational system, even though it remains unsure whether it’s ethical to motivate students purely with rewards instead of teaching them how to recognize that working hard is a benefit in itself. In reality, creating good habits and excelling at work, extrinsic motivations, make us want to do better. As someone who enjoys gaming (leveling up, ranking-up – that’s my jam), I would’ve been a better-organized teenager if my parents kept score and rewarded me accordingly. Cleaned my room? Here’s a little extra allowance. Did my homework? Go to that lowkey illegal concert!
Unfortunately, all parents hope that their children will find intrinsic motivation strong enough to perform tasks by themselves. Parents tend to think of the bigger picture rather than immediate cash payments. As opposed to making us feel great like teachers do with the reward system, parents urge us to do things – make good life decisions, even if it’s hard (like saying no to drugs, prioritizing things that are good for our future etc.) – and learn that it’s for our best. China is going bigger. With its social score system, the Chinese won’t have a chance to make a mistake and learn from it; instead, they will be immediately punished. With its turbulent history of feudal, cultural and communist change, the Chinese Communist Party seeks new ways of leading its country towards prosperity. It almost sounds like a Virtual Reality game.
Following the years of Mao Zedong’s rule, the Cultural Revolution was led with a little book of Mao Zedong’s thoughts recited by all revolutionaries. No one ever dared to openly speak against it. All the government’s actions were undeniably right and correct, and if a mistake was committed, it was pinned on the individual rather than the ‘organism’ – the entirety of the communist system.
In Niel Cheng’s beautiful book Life and Death in Shanghai, she tells the story of her six year imprisonment for being a counter-revolutionary, or an ‘imperialist dog’ – a nickname for someone educated abroad and worked for a global company. She survived the endless questionings and torture, many injuries and illnesses, but she never yielded to the revolutionaries’ accusations of being a spy – due to her longlife affiliation with the outside world, she was believed to sell information about China to the British. The book explores the mentality of Chinese society in the1960s-80s. In those years, the government’s extreme treatment of its own people resulted in brainwashing so intense that any ideology imposed upon them was automatically believed to be true. Members of the proletariat with barely any education who were exploited by the wealthy succumbed to such conditioning, and the others were just too scared to speak up. The classic Chinese philosophy of not fighting the storm but bending to the wind’s will for survival comes to mind: “the hard and strong will fall, the soft and weak will overcome”. Many people believed that the political swings come and go, and all they can do is endure in silence. Arguably, such philosophy has indeed proven correct.
Another value that influences the way people and the government works is family. Traditional Confucianism teaches respect towards elders and ancestors. Caring for each other because the tradition instructs to do so is deeply embedded in Chinese society. Since the government is at the top of the hierarchy, and shall thus be held in the highest regard, it is the people that must follow its authority.
As you might imagine, the Chinese government now wants to go one step further in ‘helping’ the country. That’s where Black Mirror comparison comes to mind. The Social Citizen Score will be drawn based on every person’s online activities and financial endeavors, which will subsequently affect “social trust”—traffic tickets, loans or even employment. So far the system is voluntary. Some private financial service companies use data from Alibaba (Chinese e-commerce giant), using any shopping and business services online to judge one’s social and economic standing. If a person scores high, Alibaba offers them easier access to loans.
As you can imagine, the program has its share of critics, especially in the West, who point to the Chinese government’s many violations in the fields of safety, human rights and censorship. But despite its detractors abroad, as of 2013 survey 85% of the Chinese are pleased with their country’s direction and in 2017 over 70% said they have trust in their government.
By 2020 China wants the national reputation system to be compulsory and therefore encourage the nation to be as trustworthy as possible – whether it is in public or in the calamity of one’s house. Despite such strong belief in trustworthiness, economic and social fraud cases happen in China, and instantly go viral online – this year already 12 banks have been fined for illegal trading. There are also a lot of institutions that only privileged have access to and end up abusing it. On a supposedly level playing field, Credit Score includes every citizen and is intended to create financial inclusion for the middle class as well. Thereby, it will theoretically work to strengthen the community and its relationship with government. Theory is slowly being put in practice. Honing values of integrity and honesty, the government has recently started applying the system to public transportation.
China is taking a capitalist approach to socialist values. It has now been four years since its announcement and the Chinese government is far from backing down. The program even includes high schoolers: those who refused military service were banned from applying to the universities of their choice. The system is planned to be fully implemented by 2020.
As the idea expands, I’m looking forward to seeing Chinese society becoming the one where public and not-so-public misdeeds are properly punished. Closer to home, in Seoul, a rampant Friday night indulgence may bring about no consequences whatsoever (apart from a dent in the bank account).
Those familiar with the show know that Black Mirror presents a rather dark futuristic vision of our lives. Obviously, this particular story with the rating system doesn’t end well. Driven by an obsession to score as high as possible, the main character loses everything, becoming an outcast. This offers a hypothetical outcome of how things might turn out in China. Though time has sure shown that the people China can endure pretty much any shake-up, be it cultural or political, it seems the social credit system will be one of its first futuristic tests.