Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.
Nosedive was the first episode of the third season of the British science fiction television anthology Black Mirror. In this episode, everyone has a mobile phone which, when pointed at another person, reveals his or her name and rating. Everyone has a rating, which ranges from 0 to 5. The following happens continually as you are walking down a street or along the corridor of a building. You give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to each person you pass, based on your instantaneous impression of that person and the nature of the encounter, no matter how trivial or quick the encounter is. A ‘thumps up’ raises that person’s rating a tiny bit; a ‘thumbs down’ lowers it. The other person concurrently rates you. Ratings determine one’s status in life, and the ability to get perks such as housing and travel. Therefore, people are on a never-ending, stressful, and soul-destroying quest to raise their online ratings for real-life rewards. Heroine Lacie desires a better apartment; she has a meltdown as she deals with unsurmountable pressure in the context of her childhood best friend’s wedding.
Interestingly, or, more accurately, chillingly, the Chinese government is introducing a Social Credit System that goes far beyond that envisioned in Nosedive. Aspects of the ultimate system have been tested regionally since 2009, and nationally since 2014. Various sources indicate different goals of the system, including fighting corruption and business fraud, regulating social behaviour, enhancing citizen ‘trustworthiness’, and improving public trust.
Each citizen is given a score. It goes up with good deeds, such as donating blood, donating to charity, or doing volunteer work. It goes down with bad deeds, such as jaywalking, parking illegally, not turning up for a restaurant booking, not visiting one’s parents often enough, not sorting one’s personal waste properly, fraudulently using other people’s travel ID card, and behaving fraudulently in financial matters.
Implications of low scores include being blacklisted and not being able to take long-distance planes or trains, being relegated to slow trains, or not being able to attend private schools or universities. As of March 2019, over 13 million people were on blacklists. People with high social credit scores wait less time at hospitals and government agencies, get discounts at hotels, can get free health check-ups, and have a better chance to get good jobs.
The system is implemented with a vast programme of video and other surveillance, including advanced face recognition, big data processing, and AI. Interestingly, it is called Skynet, the same name that was applied to the evil superintelligence network in the Terminator movie franchise. The social credit system was originally supposed to be rolled out in 2020, but it is way behind schedule.
An interesting variant of the system being used now in some Chinese cities uses big data to draw automated conclusions about whether an individual is a Coronavirus health risk, and creates a green, yellow, or red QR code on a person’s phone. Police and subway guards force individuals to show what is on their phone. People showing green can move around freely. A yellow QR code results in being asked to stay home for a week. A red code results in being quarantined for 2 weeks.
FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION
There are many aspects of this that are troubling, and much to discuss. To what extent would it be ok if the ratings were correct, and, in the latter situation, could slow spread of the virus? What recourse does one have in case ratings are incorrect, perhaps based on an erroneous report? How does one get off a blacklist? To what extent are we moving towards a society in which ratings will be visible to all, as for example if the measure of contagion risk were displayed on an electronic armband, sort of a modern Scarlet Letter? To what extent are we moving towards a society in which nothing is unimportant, in which the most trivial of actions or appearances or glances can reduce your status in life?