What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in “Brave New World Revisited,” the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us. —Neil Postman
Does the scanner see into me clearly or darkly?
Postman was a prescient man. He questioned the value of a society (ours in particular) that was uninterested in exercising its capacity to consistently exceed its potential. He understood access to information did not correlate directly with knowledge or even education, and that apathy might be more dangerous to a free society then authoritarian-directed motivation. In the intelligence community (IC), a consistent pattern has arisen in the wake of the absence of the Soviet Union, wherein the exclusivity of information is frequently confused with its importance. The IC is beset with the familiar trends many of you see in your Facebook timelines, or Twitter feeds, and which feed off of the availability of exclusive sources of information. In our contemporary society, echo chambers and confirmation bias abound.
Understanding what we see in the mirror of our society is important specifically because we use it to compare ourselves with other societies. The nature of “good vs. evil” in simplistic terms. The necessity of evil as a mean gradient for how we measure good. The quality or quantity of freedom. The nature of self-determination and the exercise of free will. These are not international standards.
Two years ago, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) released a document titled “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020).” I’ll quote a bit here. (From experience, these documents are “removed for public safety,” so you may want to save the text.)
A social credit system is an important component part of the socialist market economy system and the social governance system. It is founded on laws, regulations, standards and charters, it is based on a complete network covering the credit records of members of society and credit infrastructure, it is supported by the lawful application of credit information and a credit services system, its inherent requirements are establishing the idea of a sincerity culture, and carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues, it uses encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust as incentive mechanisms, and its objective is raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society.
Accelerating the construction of a social credit system is an important basis for comprehensively implementing the scientific development view and building a harmonious Socialist society, it is an important method to perfect the Socialist market economy system, accelerating and innovating social governance, and it has an important significance for strengthening the sincerity consciousness of the members of society, forging a desirable credit environment, raising the overall competitiveness of the country and stimulating the development of society and the progress of civilization.
The first thing to note is that this is a social credit system. Credit in the U.S. is generally monitored by the “Big Three” credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and Trans-Union. They monitor consumer and supply-side transaction data for credit evaluations, which they then provide to banks as a stark summary judgement of a consumer. The consumer generally sees this as a “credit score,” and it affects our overall buying power, since much of the U.S. is built on a fiat system. Certainly there are issues with this system, but all three agencies spend an inordinate amount of time and effort attempting to protect consumer identities.
However, the PRC system is a social one. It uses similar central metrics of evaluation, however, it includes data points submitted (presumably) by a cohort of peers. Thus, the PRC intends to use societal pressure as a lever for affecting citizen behavior. Since Chinese society is heavily influenced by face (or mianzi), the implied intent is pretty clear. The individual will be heavily coerced by both their government and their peers to adjust his/her spending habits respectively to their cohort.
The second thing to note is the plan’s pervasiveness regarding its execution. Its primary mechanism for access is mobile phones. The Chinese Central Committee understands its population very well. It seeks in all things to control it collectively and effectively. As noted in in one of my past articles, the ubiquity of phones make them excellent mediums for a soft-power tether. Not just to surveil, but to influence behavior. The potential introduction of “morally righteous” apps or soft-copy versions of Mao’s “Little Red Book” create the conditions for reflexive and near autonomous indoctrination. In some respects, this is authoritarian. In other respects, citizens of the PRC recognize the conditions of their own social contract with the Chinese state.
They put their collective before the individual and thus relinquish choice voluntarily, in sharp contrast to the U.S. There certainly are dissidents in the PRC that vehemently disagree with their government’s practices. But many in the PRC feel their way of life is moving them to the forefront of global governance. In effect, this validates their mechanism of governance. If you think that there are a 1.3 billion Chinese bursting at their emotional seams with desires for democracy, you would likely be mistaken. This leads us to the nature of this pervasiveness. It’s voluntary. Right now, it’s a voluntary system and many Chinese are first adopters. The app itself is in many subtle ways “gamefied,” meaning it rewards early adopters and frequency of use.
The third item of note is this piece in the plan:
(1) Build mechanisms to incentivise trust-keeping and punish trust-breaking.
Strengthen rewards and incentives for subjects to keep trust. Expand rewards and propaganda strength for trust-keeping acts. Grant rewards to enterprises and model individuals keeping trust according to regulations, broadly propagate them through news media, and forge a public opinion environment that trust-keeping is glorious. Development and reform, finance, banking, environmental protection, housing and urban construction, traffic and transportation, commercial, industrial, fiscal, quality inspection, security supervision, customs, intellectual property rights and other such departments must, in the process of market supervision and public service, deepen the application of credit information and credit products, and extent “green path” support and incentive mechanisms, such as preferential management, simplifying procedures, etc., to those keeping trust…
…Perfect social public opinion supervision mechanisms, strengthen disclosure and exposure of trust-breaking acts, give rein to the role of the masses in appraisal, discussion, criticism and reports, shape social deterrence through social moral condemnation, and censure trust-breaking acts of members of society.
Interesting is not just the litany of facets encompassing societal life regarding trust-keeping and trust-breaking, but also the introduction of punitive measures for trust-breaking. “Perfect” here is not a state of of being, but rather aspirational. The supervision is not yet perfect. It seeks to be.
Architects and executors
By now, you’re probably asking “Why?” There are a lot whys. The answer to each depends on who you ask. The PRC. Or not the PRC. The PRC has not, until recently, had a credit-reporting system. It is also managing a population that is learning the benefits (perhaps faster than the drawbacks) of personal credit. The introduction of this system, as with all things created by the Chinese state, rides on a seemingly benign current.
Creating a credit-monitoring system increases Chinese fiscal standing in the international community as a regulatory-driven effort to control accumulation of personal debt, reform lack of intellectual property rights, increase standard of living, and generally increase economic elasticity. Since its current economy is largely a manifestation of regionally decentralized authoritarianism rather than free-market efforts, it is very possible that their credit system is merely a mechanism to offset their poorly managed market.
So who are the executors of this system? If the Chinese politburo planned it out, then who is expected to see it to fruition? Unsurprisingly, Jack Ma and Alibaba have taken up this banner. The Alibaba Group teamed up with Baihe, a matchmaking service, to create the integration and back end of a system they developed called Sesame Credit. It should be noted that Sesame Credit is different from Credit Sesame (a business founded by Adrian Nazari). Credit Sesame provides free credit scores.
Sesame Credit is a credit-assessment system. There are eight such social-credit systems being developed in the PRC. Alibaba is one of the eight and arguably the most popular. The financials are assessed by Ant Financial Group, a purveyor of loans for Alibaba virtual storefronts. Oddly enough, their logo is a cyclopean blue ant reminding me very much of Hubertus Bigend‘s Blue Ant “cool-hunters” in William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy. Ant was formerly Alipay, which is designed in a similar vein to iPay or Android Pay, and provides similar mobile payment services. The final result is a radar graph or number you can view in your Alipay app on your phone.
Consider the implications to Chinese society. Now ask yourself, when will you join up when social credit is introduced into the U.S.?
(Featured image courtesy of ibtimes.co.uk)