In the last piece of this series on Dystopian Jitters, I wrote about how the COVID-19 pandemic has been used to foster tolerance of mass surveillance. (See, Mass Surveillance and COVID-19 – Dystopian Jitters, I) Given the imperative to survive, most everyone is willing to sacrifice privacy, even liberty, in order to avoid death. But isn’t the point, as Socrates once observed, not merely to live, but to live well?
Once the crisis passes, either through herd immunity and the gradual winnowing of the vulnerable, or development and administration of a vaccine, the tools of mass surveillance, and therefore, mass social control, will be in place. How will they be used to enhance well-being?
Consider the enormous power of big data.
Although we are in an election year, all eyes have been on the evolving pandemic. When last we discussed social media and elections, everyone talked about the dangers of big data. in terms of its potential for manipulation, newsfeeds segregated folks into “silos,” aggregating folks together based on individualized assessments of our passions as reflected in our idiosyncracies. A sense of the common good was lost to identity pandering.
Who benefitted from this?
The social media giants, of course, especially Facebook. We can’t get enough of social media, clicking on what we like and dislike, leaving digital surplus – metadata – that is harvest and sold to others for the purpose of predicting our behavior. There’s money in manipulating us.
And there is also social control.
Ask the Chinese government, where, amid the outbreak of COVID-19, China was rolling out its social credit system.
The goal is simple. Rate all residents of China in terms of their citizenship. Those whose behavior coincides the goals of the regime get a higher score, and that score translates into better access to goods and services. Put another way, goods and services will be rationed according to one’s social credit score. Good citizens get more.
The same technology that makes possible mass surveillance in the name of public health and the harvesting of discrete data about masses of individual’s preferences also makes social ranking of people possible.
I was reminded of how easy, and even acceptable, social credit scores might be Easter morning.
I traveled into New Haven to spend some time in the office. Even amid a shutdown, there is mail to read, bills to pay – the flotsam and jetsam of any small business.
There wasn’t much traffic on the road. But then I saw one of the local homeless persons standing curbside, asking for handouts. A few blocks later, I spotted two men, engaged in a lively – perhaps substance assisted – conversation; neither man wore a mask or gloves.
It was the first time in this brave new world of ours that I saw blossom within me an instantaneous new prejudice. Not wearing a mask? Not engaging in social distancing? Not honoring the new social coda? I was outraged that these two men might soon occupy a hospital bed nearby. Who would be denied care because these men were so careless?
“Thin the herd,” I muttered.
I suspect many folks are thinking along the same lines.
Years ago, Kurt Vonnegut imagined a world in which something like social credit scores evened the playing field in a nation with a perhaps too literal a conception of equality.
In a short story entitle “Harrison Bergeron,” first published in 1961 and now available in a collection assembled by Modern Library, a society devoted to equality figured how to make sure all folks had equal life chances. Folks had microchips implanted in them. Born with a higher than average intelligence? No worries. Your performance would could be depressed toward the mean by simple periodic blasts of high frequency noise – try reading a complex novel over the screech. Those fleet of foot could be compelled to carry extra weight. Everyone hovered around the same dismal center. Equality was served, all under the watchful eye of equality guardians.
It’s chilling, and repulsive. A society that feared excellence came to revere mediocrity.
That’s an extreme version of social scoring.
A more likely application would be behavior modification by restricting access to goods and services. Only the obedient can fly first class, or maybe fly at all. The best seats at public events, or restaurants, or other public goods can be reserved for the ”good” folks. In times of scarcity, only those scoring a certain value would get access to necessities.
The tools of mass surveillance make all that possible.
In the next essay in these series we’ll discuss how social credit scoring can be used to serve the ends of “social justice.” Spoiler: There’s reason “Harrison Bergeron” won the 2019 Hall of Fame Award from the Libertarian Futurist Society. Race-based taxes, anyone?