In 1949 George Orwell published his classic, “1984.” The novel has defined our conception of modern tyranny since that time. When speaking or writing about totalitarian systems around the globe, terms like “newspeak,” “thought police,” and above all “Orwellian” are part of the lexicon uniformly understood by all interested in the topic. Undoubtedly these and other concepts are still very useful, but China’s new social credit system may have more in common with an episode of the British television series Black Mirror than Orwell’s dystopian novel.
Black Mirror is perhaps best described as a sort of updated British variant of “The Twilight Zone,” in which each episode imagines a future where some technology, normally available today, is taken to a not-too-absurd extreme to produce a disturbing version of a possible near future. According to Netflix, where the series is available, the series “explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.” If you’re interested in autonomous weapon systems, the episode Metalhead is must see TV. But the episode where life truly imitates art is called Nosedive.
In Nosedive we meet Lacie Pound, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, a young woman who inhabits a world very recognizable to us – except that the concept of social media, and particularly “liking” someone else’s posting, has run wild. Virtually every interaction Lacie has with another human being is rated on a scale of one to five stars and these ratings contribute to an overall rating of Lacie and every other person on the same five star scale. How she says hello to each person she meets, how she laughs, the pictures she posts – they’re constantly judged by everyone else, as she in turn judges them. The story is driven by Lacie’s desire to move into a desirable neighborhood, but she lacks the money and, more importantly, the star rating to gain access. If, however, she can get her rating up from a 4.2 to a 4.5, special financing — and hence access — will be available. Lacie actually engages a type of consultant who explores her ratings and history and advises her that if she can get positive reviews from people who themselves have high ratings, then her rating will rise and all will be right with the world. The rest of the story revolves around her efforts to attend a highly rated (4.8) childhood friend’s wedding and a series of unfortunate encounters which constantly lower her rating, pushing the notion of “the good life” further and further away at each turn. Her rapid descent inspires the episode’s title, Nosedive.
Nowhere in the episode does any sort of view of a person’s politics seem to enter into the rating scheme and there is very little presence of any sort of governmental role in the whole system. Peer ratings seem to be governed by a combination of a sort of overall appearance of attractiveness combined with a syrupy and quite transparent phony pleasantness where every smile and laugh is forced. Lacie even practices her laugh in front of a mirror. Despite the appearance of no governmental or political control, however, comparisons between Nosedive and China’s rapidly developing social credit system have been quickly drawn.
The parallels between Nosedive and the Chinese system were so obvious that in a 2016 interview Charlie Booker, Black Mirror’s creator, when asked about the parallels stated “They’re going to do the system from ‘Nosedive’ for citizens! It’s incredibly sinister. Am I right in thinking that your ranking is affected by your friends, so if you hang with the wrong crowd, your social ranking will go down? Wow. It’s completely mental.” He went on to state very directly, “I promise you we didn’t sell the idea to the Chinese government!”
TYRANNY WITHOUT FEAR
So why should a Chinese version of Nosedive controlled by the Communist Party scare us more than Orwell’s Big Brother? Orwell’s novel seems to posit a world in which the Nazi or Stalinist versions of totalitarianism are taken to their logical extreme. Yes the omnipresent telescreens add a sci-fi component, but a world ruled by Big Brother is not difficult to imagine. While more all-encompassing than tyrannies of the past, the rulers of 1984 still employ the essential ingredient common to all tyrannies – they rest on fear to ensure the regime’s control. Every ruler or government to which we might apply the term tyranny or dictatorship employs a common set of tools. People who step out of line may be imprisoned, tortured or killed. It is the threat of this pain and suffering that the state employs to preserve its power. Yes it will also reward those who assist and support the state, but fear and intimidation are by far the tools of choice. Some citizens may indeed seek favors from the state but far more avoid offending it to avoid devastating consequences.
But what China’s social credit system potentially does turns the old equation of tyranny on its head — where people comply with the Party’s desires less out of fear of reprisals or punishment, but more out of a simple desire to make everyday life bearable. In Lacie’s world, we see the ability to buy a house, rent a car, or even enter your office governed by a simple rating. Now imagine the Chinese use existing technology to micromanage every economic transaction a person makes. We have all experienced how a good or bad credit rating might impact our ability to buy a house or a car. Imagine if where you live, where your kids go to school, what clothes you buy, where you shop, what TV channels you watch, what libraries or public parks you go to, were all governed by the social rating the party doles out. It is not hard to imagine two people walking into a store and one having a purchase rejected at the cash register while the other gets the same item for a discount, all because their ratings differ. A person might modify his or her behavior in line with the state’s desires not because he or she fears the knock at the door in the middle of the night but because they just want to bring home a chicken for dinner or buy a high-speed train ticket.
And how does the world confront this tyranny? The United States or the UN or Amnesty International can be forceful and eloquent in decrying torture or imprisonment, but what does it say when the Chinese people are compelled into submission by the desire to live in a better neighborhood? Or buy a better car? The government can poke and prod in myriad little ways tailored to each citizen’s circumstance and never actually commit a “human rights violation.” How do we seize the moral high ground in this world?
A POTENTIAL FLY IN THE OINTMENT
One of the most ominous features of China’s social credit system may contain a fatal flaw. On the one hand, modern technology takes the telescreens of Orwell’s world to the next level as essentially every citizen carries a high definition video camera in his or her pocket, making almost every action observable, recordable and reportable to the government to evaluate. Ironically this might also serve to democratize a certain amount of power. With every citizen a potential reporter, that also makes every citizen a partner in the state’s power structure. Each citizen is suppressed not so much by the secret police but by his or her neighbors, enabling an East Germany-style Stasi apparatus on steroids. At the same time this might amplify a problem already inherent in the Chinese system – corruption.
Imagine if the rental car agent or the security guard offered to change their inputs to the system if Lacie would offer them something in return. In a sense, while each citizen might have a hold over his or her fellow citizens, they also possess a potentially marketable commodity that could create a black market for positive ratings. Knowing that a higher rating might result in a tangible economic benefit, might many people be willing to trade something for better numbers? Potentially even groups of people might band together to ensure they rate each other well. Nosedive even hints at this. In the beginning of the episode we see that Lacie lives with a kind of slacker brother who seems far less concerned with his rating and critiques her for the lengths she will go to enhance her numbers. Lacie however notes that her brother and his video gamer buddies all give each other good ratings. The brother can afford the luxury of his disdain for the system because he and his friends have devised a means of thwarting it. Technically talented citizens might even find a way to “hack” the system. The Chinese may find that rather than incentivizing positive behavior they are in fact incentivizing corruption, giving people a whole new source of goods and services to barter that the government may not control.
It remains to be seen just how far the Chinese system will actually go and if Nosedive does indeed foreshadow a Black Mirror reflection of tyranny in the future. But the combination of several technologies and a government which seeks to preserve its powers at all costs could pose a new and difficult challenge for those who believe in human freedom.
Rob Levinson is a retired Lt. Col in the U.S. Air Force with over 20 years of service as an intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served in Latin America, the Middle East and South Korea as an intelligence officer, foreign area officer, commander and politico-military affairs officer. He currently works as a defense analyst.