WHEN HE OFFERED to arrange a swifter mode of transportation, she declined. When he asked why, she explained that she “needed the steps” on her Fitbit to sign in to her social media accounts. If she fell below the right number of steps, it would lower her health and fitness rating, which is part of her social rating, which is monitored by the government. A low social rating could prevent her from working or traveling abroad.
China’s social rating system, which was announced by the ruling Communist Party in 2014, will soon be a fact of life for many more Chinese.
By 2020, if the Party’s plan holds, every footstep, keystroke, like, dislike, social media contact, and posting tracked by the state will affect one’s social rating.
Personal “creditworthiness” or “trustworthiness” points will be used to reward and punish individuals and companies by granting or denying them access to public services like health care, travel, and employment, according to a plan released last year by the municipal government of Beijing. High-scoring individuals will find themselves in a “green channel,” where they can more easily access social opportunities, while those who take actions that are disapproved of by the state will be “unable to move a step.”
Still, it can’t happen here, right? We are iPhone owners and Amazon Prime members, not vassals of a one-party state. We are canny consumers who know that Facebook is tracking our interactions and Google is selling us stuff.
Yet it seems to me there is little reason to imagine that the people who run large technology companies have any vested interest in allowing pre-digital folkways to interfere with their 21st-century engineering and business models, any more than 19th-century robber barons showed any particular regard for laws or people that got in the way of their railroads and steel trusts.
Facebook, Google, and other big-data monopolists already hoover up behavioral markers and cues on a scale and with a frequency that few of us understand. They then analyze, package, and sell that data to their partners.
The machines and systems that the techno-monopolists have built are changing us faster than they or we understand. The scale of this change is so vast and systemic that we simple humans can’t do the math—perhaps in part because of the way that incessant smartphone use has affected our ability to pay attention to anything longer than 140 or 280 characters.
As the idea of a “right to privacy,” for example, starts to seem hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical in the face of ever-more-invasive data systems—whose eyes and ears, i.e., our smartphones, follow us everywhere—so has our belief that other individual rights, like freedom of speech, are somehow sacred.
Being wired together with billions of other humans in vast networks mediated by thinking machines is not an experience that humans have enjoyed before. The best guides we have to this emerging reality may be failed 20th-century totalitarian experiments and science fiction. More on that a little later.
The speed at which individual-rights-and-privacy-based social arrangements collapse is likely to depend on how fast Big Tech and the American national security apparatus consummate a relationship that has been growing ever closer for the past decade. While US surveillance agencies do not have regular real-time access to the gigantic amounts of data collected by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon—as far as we know, anyway—there is both anecdotal and hard evidence to suggest that the once-distant planets of consumer Big Tech and American surveillance agencies are fast merging into a single corporate-bureaucratic life-world, whose potential for tracking, sorting, gas-lighting, manipulating, and censoring citizens may result in a softer version of China’s Big Brother.