[Executive Summary: Facebook-style Social Media needs to die now, before it gets a chance to grow into this monstrosity.]
Given the distinctly Big Brother-flavoured response to the notion of China introducing a highly automated social credit system, an academic who has spent 16 months in China exploring attitudes to the idea of an automated social credit system gives us the perspective from folks who would be affected by the system once China finishes rolling it out:
During my time there, I found that positive perceptions of the social credit system among ordinary Chinese people were more prevalent than negative ones. Some welcomed the introduction of the shehui xinyong system while others were indifferent, and a significant number could see its benefits.
The thing is, western eyes looking at social credit and worrying about how badly it could turn out might indeed be looking at the system while lacking a Chinese cultural perspective on the reasons why the Chinese state standing in for the ancient Chinese concept of 'tian'1, but that's not the really important issue here.
First, what's being reported here from China is a view formed before the social credit system is anywhere close to being rolled out. By the time it's been fully operational for half a decade who knows whether the system will in fact have a reputation with the Chinese populace as being good at delivering judgement on the behaviour of the populace?
Second, given the extent to which the Chinese state leans on those who do not conform to the ideals of the state even using low-tech means, isn't the real issue less that Westerners fail to understand tian and more that the prospect of the Chinese state turning into Facebook-on-steroids-and-run-by-a-government-free-of-pesky-independent-media-providing-information-about-all-those-messy-edge-cases might just be the start of our problems.
Imagine social credit being pointed to by future populist politicians in the West, keen to divert attention from the way they screwed up their response to COVID-19. That's a very scary concept. Consider how forty years ago - back when many people didn't even have a credit card - most people didn't worry too much about their credit rating, and how far that situation has changed now. Who's to say that politicians eager for the state to step back and for the populace to behave themselves won't find the concept behind social credit very appealing one day? Nobody's saying out loud right now that maybe the Chinese have the right idea, but that doesn't mean that the same concepts couldn't be repackaged and a decade down the line it'll seem like common sense to build on what's already out there?
- The author describes Tian as an entity that "resembles the sky in that it is distant to the point that it has given up on the task of reconciling the human world with itself, but nevertheless knows about everyone’s deeds and thoughts." ↩