Regular readers of this column know that I enjoy a good science fiction story. Always have. I enjoy the stories that give us an insight to how we are (or aren’t) dealing with social issues of today by doing something totally over the top as an illustration of what we need to see today.
“Black Mirror,” a British science fiction television show is a sort of “Twilight Zone” for today. It airs on the streaming service Netflix. A while back, I saw an episode entitled “Nosedive” where a young woman, living in a society where a person is judged and rated from one to five stars for every interaction, is hoping to improve her life. The ratings affect a person’s socioeconomic standing. A bad rating can affect what you pay for a service or determine if you even get served.
In the episode, the main character, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, wants to rent a new luxury apartment. In order to increase her rating, she agrees to be a bridesmaid at a childhood friend’s wedding. Her obsession leads to several mishaps on her journey to the wedding that culminate in a rapid reduction in her ratings.
I thought at the time it was a rather biting indictment on how superficial and shallow we have become as a society, and how social media is limiting the real engagements we have with others in life to the point that we seem to be incapable of being genuine with others in real life.
I thought it was a clever cautionary tale.
I was wrong. It turns out life is indeed stranger than fiction. A real version of the story is set to take place next year in China.
Last week I saw a news report about a new social credit system being tested in China. Every citizen will be scored based on their behavior. Good actions, like volunteering, and bad, like littering, are tracked using algorithms, artificial intelligence and facial recognition — and there are real consequences for a high or low score.
Citizens are scored from 350 to 950, much like a credit score. The reporter doing the story talked to two Chinese citizens who are fine with the state surveilling them as well as reporting on their neighbors to the state every week.
A low score can keep a person from travelling and limit the options for children to attend a good school.
The report says that China has a network of 200 million surveillance cameras to keep tabs on its 1.4 billion citizens.
The system will be rolled out nationwide next year.
When I saw this two minute television report, my blood ran cold. What kind of world are we living in where we give up our privacy to the state in hopes of getting a better deal on a television?
It’s easy to dismiss this as a totalitarian state finding a way to control its growing population, but I can’t help but wonder how much of this is already going on in our nation. We use social media to share personal thoughts and all sorts of photos, tell businesses what soap we like and publicly give our political opinions.
Would we do the same if we were living in China? Would we do the same if we had to live on our “likes?”
It may not be a hypothetical question.
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