In the third season of popular British television series "Black Mirror," the first episode features an eye-embedded app that lets people rate their interactions with one another and share status updates. It's like Facebook, Instagram, and Yelp combined — with serious stakes.
Characters who act nice and don't appear smarmy can get five stars. But if they act negatively, they'll face one-star reviews. If someone drops too low, they become a kind of second-class citizen — they're socially shunned, shuttered out of workplaces, forced to pay a premium on leases, and penalized in myriad other ways.
Like many "Black Mirror" episodes, this one takes a present tech-related paranoia to its extreme. But in China, a similar system could soon become a reality.
The Chinese government is planning on implementing a system that connects citizens' financial, social, political, and legal credit ratings into one big social trustability score. The idea would be that if someone breaks trust in one area, they'd be adversely affected everywhere.
Proponents of the plan, like Chinese blogger Wenquan Xin, say the system is needed because many of China's 1.3 billion citizens don't own a credit card, and the country lacks an equivalent system to the US' FICO credit score. That means bankers and loan providers don't have much to go on.
According to the Washington Post, eight private companies have created pilot "credit databases" that compile information about individuals.
Sesame Credit, a subsidiary of e-commerce giant Alibaba, is already running a social credit system. According to the BBC, the company determines people's scores by incorporating a number of factors into its algorithms, including whether someone has gotten traffic tickets, if they've paid their taxes, and what they buy online. If you're constantly buying video games, for instance, you'll be seen as idle. If you're buying diapers, you could be considered a responsible parent.
Those with high rankings can rent bikes or cars without leaving a deposit, and skip lines at hospitals by paying after they leave, according to the Post. 15% of users on Chinese dating site Baihe choose to display their Sesame Credit score, and that some weed out potential dates based on that measure of trustability.
This preferential treatment for higher-rated people is very similar to the scenario depicted on "Black Mirror."
The Chinese plan for a more widespread scoring system has been in the works since 2015. But in September, the government released bullet points of proposed penalties for those who "breaks social trust" (which could be done by defaulting on a loan, for example, or voicing a dissenting opinion against the government online).
According to the policy documents, here's what could happen if you're a low scorer:
- You won't be considered for public office
- You'll lose access to social security and welfare
- You'll be frisked more thoroughly when passing through Chinese customs
- You'll be shut out of senior level positions in the food and drug sector
- You won't get a bed in overnight trains
- You'll be shut out higher-starred hotels and restaurants and will be rejected by travel agents
- Your children won't be allowed into more expensive private schools
In the "Black Mirror" episode, titled "Nosedive," the purpose of a universal ratings system is ostensibly to incentivize untrustworthy individuals in a society to shape up to what other members consider good.
But the irony in the episode is that the system ends up creating a culture of disingenuity — a "numbers game" where people kiss up to popular folks to raise their social standing, rather than simply striving to be a better person.
Even though the technology in "Nosedive" isn't here yet, China's social credit scores could one day contribute to the sort of culture we saw in "Black Mirror." And if the episode's finale is any good predictor of the outcome, the system might not end happily for those who step out of line with popular opinion.