The Cheat Sheet

Are we becoming a Black Mirror society?

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on December 26, 2019

C’mon! Is this how you want to sign off 2019?

Well, to be fair, I haven’t made a statement yet. But standing at gate 2020 and looking back at the events that have shaped the passing year, all one can feel is an eerie sense of insecurity. And there is an abundance of anxiety over the future of the planet and of the people inhabit it.

You sound like Greta Thunberg. Is climate change your problem?

That and more. In fact, a lot has been written about Thunberg and the thorny issue of climate changeand how governments and businesses are turning a blind eye to human-induced global warming. But what’s perhaps even more worrying is the way we as a society are becoming dependent on technology, allowing businesses that control platforms and technology products to control, tweak, tune and trade data. We have come to the age of what writer Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘Surveillance Capitalism’.

Is this then about social media? I’ve always had bad vibes about it.

Let’s go back to Black Mirror for a moment. Remember, the first episode in the third series of the British science fiction anthology? The episode Nosedive, which came out in October 2016, exposes to us a world where people rate each other with stars. Interestingly, as ‘far’ back as in 2016, ranking humans with stars looked like an act that could happen only in a suitably remote period.

Yes, that sounds so present now!

Indeed. The people in Nosedive rate everyone they interact with between 1-5 stars. These reviews are so strong that it can make or break their socioeconomic life. And the idea sounded too dystopian then — until we heard of a social experiment China had already begun in 2015 itself.

A people-rating system?

Yes. In spring 2015, China announced a plan to develop a ‘Social Credit System’, which would be set in motion by 2020. As sociologist Steffen Mau describes in his recent book, The Metric Society, under the Chinese system, the government will gather data on every individual’s behaviour in the social sphere and evaluate and aggregate the data into a single score, which will be used to rate and rank services a citizen could avail from the state.

Oh dear, what are the activities they typically track?

These include your behaviour on the Internet, your purchases, driving offences, job contracts, academic activities, teachers’ reports, reviews from your supervisors, “conflicts with one’s landlord or one’s children’s behaviour” and similar activities.

OMG, that’s worse than Big Brother watching!

You bet. But China is not the only regime that toys with such dystopian, surveillance fancies. Chile tried a similar one during the period of dictator Pinochet with the Directory of Commercial Information. Reports said Germany is trying to build a similar system using help from Schufa, a private credit rating agency. Russia keeps digital profiles of citizens, while Venezuela has the carnet de la patria smart ID system, with technical assistance from China’s ZTE. Even in the US, algorithmic tools have conquered almost every field where rating and ranking are required, from welfare distribution to recruitment. India’s tax department has a plan, Project Insight, that critics say has the potential to become a toxic credit system. Project Insight uses Big Data analytics to track online activities of taxpayers and build a score which can be used to nudge faulty parties to comply.

Interesting, and scary!

Even though such processes have always been there, the passing year saw them gain unprecedented momentum, with the advancement in machine learning, data analytics, cloud computing and real-time surveillance making it possible to track anyone from anywhere. What’s equally bothersome is the fact that the public at large is either ignorant or becomes willing partners to such taming processes thanks to its interest in what is called the ‘attention economy’, powered by platforms like Instagram, Facebook and similar services where personal data is shared with scant regard to individual privacy.

So what’s to be done?

Let 2020 be the year you reclaim your data and raise concerns when you’re tweaked into a score or a number. As Mau put it, the current mania for measurement and quantification eats away at social relationships, and even our sense of ourselves. Let 2020 be when you cease to be a Black Mirror episode and say you’re much more than your data.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on December 26, 2019

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