Back in August, I wondered in this space whether the growing power of the surveillance state would return shame to our society and bring about “The New Puritanism.” China is betting heavily that it will.
Some of you may have caught the recent “60 Minutes” segment with its chilling real-time evocation of an actual Minority Report society. If life imitates art, life picked a pretty scary model here. Watching a live-stream of pedestrians on a busy city street in China, each accompanied with its own bespoke chyron identifying each passerby with precision made my Boomer blood run cold. I grew up in New York where J-walking is sport. In China, J-walk and you end up with your face on a digital wall of shame for all to see. In a society where conformity is valued, tech has weaponized shame.
But shame isn’t just about safer streets in China. It’s about social engineering on a grand scale. China’s Social Credit Initiative is a product of its “top-level design” approach. Its central objective is the development of a national reputation system, assigning a social credit number that reflects “a qualitative judgment of relevant data about the subject.” Remember when your high school guidance counselor warned you about the importance of preserving a clean “permanent record”? Turns out she wasn’t wrong; she was just ahead of her time.
The Chinese make no bones about using surveillance to create and enforce the kind of citizens it wants in its society. There is actually a magazine published in China that is kind of a malevolent version of Santa’s “naughty and nice” list. On the red pages are the nice “trustworthy” citizens. They get cheaper train fare and better insurance rates. On the black pages are the folks who are getting coal in their stockings.
But until I started researching this piece, it did not dawn on me the full scale of what China is about with its social credit scoring. It is nothing less than a complete re-imaging of governance. In Next Generation Law: Data Driven Governance and Accountability Based on Regulatory Systems in the West and Social Credit Regimes in China, (Catchy title, no?) Larry Cata Backer suggests that “social credit represents the expression of new forms of governance that are only possible through the correct utilization of big data management.” (Not sure what “correct” means in this context, but never mind.) More to the point for Western constitutional societies like ours is this bombshell:
Accountability regimes grounded in behavior standards enforced through data driven analytics may well change the focus of public law from constitution and rule of law to analytics and algorithm.
Think about that for a minute. In a social credit system, the law, the lawyers and the regulators become the handmaidens of the state, there only to enforce compliance with whatever behavior the state wishes to see. In such a society, the data make the rules and blind obedience is not enough. It isn’t just that you comply; it’s how you comply that counts. Imagine a society that rewards and punishes you based on your perceived sincerity, as judged by not a human, but a robot. (See my colleague Ted Claypoole’s work on “brainspray” for more on that.)
At least the Precogs were human.