We share our data on public platforms every day. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram dominate the avenues by which we communicate our lifestyles to our peers. Most Americans’ perceptions of themselves and the world-at-large are facilitated through the prism of their digital devices. Fueled by isolation and narcissism, we now define ourselves on public diaries to the masses.
Years before our parents’ generation joined the platforms themselves, they warned Millenials of the dangers of sharing too much content, as it could pose a threat to future job applicability. Hiring managers would analyze your personal lifestyle to evaluate your value as an employee, jeopardizing your ability to get hired. Our parents were right. Unfortunately, we have moved far beyond that predicament in such a short period of time. Now those who exist off social media platforms are such a small demographic, it’s nearly statistically insignificant. In 2018, Facebook reached 2.3 billion active users.
Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have all of our information; they know our habits, thoughts, tastes and emotions. They have all of this data, because we willfully give it to them every day. It is by design that each of these four companies has infiltrated the psyche of consumers, as Scott Galloway details in his book, The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.
Credit Card companies evaluate your credit score based on the purchases you make. It has been cited that those that purchase the cushion tabs under the legs of their furniture, are rewarded with higher scores, as they reflect responsibility; whereas those that make purchases from secondhand clothing stores may go down, because credit agencies assume you can’t afford new clothes (the complete antithesis to circular economy thinking). Cash is supposed to serve as a generally untraceable form of currency. Yet in stores across America, many are transitioning to cashless checkout, where digital money (cards and mobile pay) are the only form accepted. States and cities are fighting back to protect lower-income families who depend on cash, but these cases are often playing out in small courts, unlikely to make a significant dent to the new development.
We’ve learned to accept this new reality, by the simple nature of its ubiquitous presence and repetition. James Comey said publicly “there is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.” Any coherent consumer knows the targeting of ads is a result of data agencies that sell our digital history.
But would you accept the degree of intrusion now being implemented by countries like China, with the deployment of public Social Credit Scores? While the program is currently optional, it is set for mandatory implementation with its 1.3 billion citizens in 2020. The Social Credit Score is a quantifiable score determined by five factors: credit history, fulfillment capacity, personal characteristics, behavior and preference and interpersonal relationships. The score would determine your trustworthiness by the country. It is currently being used to determine your ability to purchase a car or travel out of the country. It is essentially a gamified version of your social status and worth, a ‘digital scarlet letter’. China’s scale and growth are serious drivers in such an Orwellian design to monitor and control its society and economy.
Here in America, credit agencies have been collecting our financial worthiness for decades. The growth of social media in the past decade could serve as the branches to complete the Social Credit Score tree. The content and ideas you share, the thoughts and energy you add into the public sphere, would then dictate the score you were assigned. While our lifestyles, popularity and affiliations on Facebook would determine our social currency. Our purchasing habits on Amazon would determine how responsible of a consumer you are. What’s fascinating is the inclusion of interpersonal relationships in China’s score structure; how it pressures citizens to maintain good company, creating a fast-acting social force to weed out the low scoring citizens, shaming a whole class of people out of society.
Mass surveillance, data collection and ranking of citizens is a complicated, controversial and philosophical topic, which requires much more discussion of the ethical and moral implications.
Yet, through a sustainability lens, Social Credit Scores may incentivize more responsible behaviors.
How might economies function if one’s environmental footprint was public? Will we live more sustainably if pressured by economic and social forces, rather than the goodwill and selflessness of those concerned by the future ramifications of decades of environmental degradation?
What if the waste created by a person was tracked and ranked by landfill receipts? What if people were rewarded for low-impact transportation, or a citizen’s score was hampered by the excessive nature of their purchases? What if the spreading of regenerative agriculture was rewarded?
American sentiment of freedom would most certainly resist the introduction of a Social Credit Score. Yet the institutions are all in place, if we one day reach the inevitable outcome mimicking China’s approach for social control.
We are approaching the limits of our capacity to inhabit our land sustainably, as our water supply diminishes, and our food production becomes more threatened by the demands of our growing population. The standards by which we live will need to change drastically if humans are to have any chance at large-scale survival. Regenerative innovations will have to transform our way of life. We either proactively take on these responsibilities, by changing our consumption, our systems and our values; or realities like a Social Credit Score could be the reactive force to maintain order.
When it comes to climate change, many people argue that business is the number one culprit, as The Guardian cited 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the global emissions causing climate change. But others argue that companies are just satisfying customer demands, and that it is our buying habits that must shift. If this is true, the opportunity to shift the lifestyles of citizens to encourage sustainable behaviors for rewarding high credit scores, would generate a domino effect. This, in turn, would drive consumers to buy from businesses that behave responsibly to maintain high social credit scores.
This dystopian future may soon become reality. It is jarring and seriously intrusive to our concept of life today, but all the more reason to question its moral and viable applications. Social designs will transform as we navigate an uncertain future. Where do you stand?