Thursday, 8 October 2015

In the Peeple's Republic

Let me see if I've got this. A short while back, some people claimed to have invented this thing called Peeple, which would let you rate the people in your life. Some other people pointed out that this was a really horrible idea. But then turned out that that the thing was just a made-up thing, so those other people felt a bit silly for getting so upset about it. 

But then we found out that some people in China have invented a variant of the thing which is apparently a real thing and lets the Very Important People who live there rate all the less-important people in the country (they're making a list and checking it twice, they're gonna find out who's naughty or nice). The Chinese thing is called a Universal Credit Score and it's like the credit rating you'd get from Experian, except that you're not just rated on your financial credit-worthiness:
Things that will make your score deteriorate include posting political opinions without prior permission, talking about or describing a different history than the official one, or even publishing accurate up-to-date news from the Shanghai stock market collapse (which was and is embarrassing to the Chinese regime).
The Universal Credit Score starts to look all social media-ish and Peeply when you download the app. The app in question is called Sesame Credit (presumably no relation to Credit Sesame) and it lets you see your citizen status' score and post it on Weibo to impress your friends (although you need to check that your friends aren't the sorts of people who'd express unorthodox political views, because associating with subversives can have a negative effect on your citizen status rating).

Your citizen status score is expressed in points. And what do points mean? Prizes! Here are some of the featured prizes:
  • At a score of 650, you may rent a car without leaving a deposit.
  • At 700, you get access to a bureaucratic fast track to a Singapore travel permit.
  • And at 750, you get a similar fast track to a coveted pan-European Schengen visa.
At the moment it's all about exclusive privileges for permium citizens, but once the thing is fully rolled out, any backsliders, deviants and malcontents will receive their due punishment:
It has also announced that while there are benefits today for obedient people, it intends to add various sanctions for people who don’t behave, like limited Internet connectivity. Such people will also be barred from serving in certain high-status and influential positions, like government official, reporter, CEO, statistician, and similar.
No wonder some of our own political elite are already in love with the Chinese way of doing things.

A word of caution, though - just as Peeple turned out to be not quite everything it was supposed to be, there are apparently still fewer than a million people listed on Credit China (which currently holds conventional credit rating scores, but will supposedly include citizen status rating information in future) and the number of people who've chosen to brag about their citizen status rating on Weibo is currently an underwhelming figure somewhere below 100,000, so I'm not sure whether, in a country with 1,393,000,000+ people, this yet counts as an actual thing.

If this does turn out to be an actual thing, it would confirm my idea of what sort of nightmare we're most likely to end up in - despite the ubiquitous surveillance, it'll look less like 1984's boot stamping on a human face than Brave New World's society of docile, contented, conformist consumers, kept in check by shiny distractions, peer pressure and a large doses of conditioning propaganda from a managerialist overclass.

It's the consumerist, elective element of this scenario that makes it seem more Huxleyite than Orwellian - first they offer you the rent-a-car and holiday deals and the opportunity to be the envy of all your friends. They'll only start revoking your personhood if you're not absolutely delighted with their amazing offers. 

It's kind of credible, because it's only a more formalised version of what we have at home - give up a little freedom in return for owning stuff you can't afford, a little privacy in return for finding out that somebody you barely know has posted an amusingly-captioned picture of a cat on social media and a little more of your freedom and privacy so that the security services can protect you from the vanishingly-small risk of falling victim to a terrorist outrage. You're getting something back in return for surrendering a little bit of your autonomy, not being beaten into submission by a black-uniformed goon. And everything will be OK, so long as you don't start asking difficult questions about whether what you're being offered is worth as much as what you're expected to give up.

It's a funny old world where the Communist Party of China seems to be trying to control the masses with the equivalent of a retail loyalty card, whilst the most vocal remaining proponents of the old Maoist maxim that 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun' are those God-fearing, tea-partying, National Rifle Association card-carrying folk on the American right. Somebody ought to tell those guys that when the gubbermint finally come to get 'em, the varmints won't be comin' in black helicopters to prise their guns from their cold, dead hands. They'll more likely be making them a suspiciously good offer on no-deposit car rental.