The Atlantic: China’s Dystopian Tech Could Be Contagious

A really interesting piece about how the PRC’s “social credit” scheme might have consequences for life in cities everywhere.


In June 2014, the governing State Council of the People’s Republic of China issued a remarkable document. Dryly entitled “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System,” it laid out the methods by which the state intended to weave together public and private records of personal behavior, and from them derive a single numeric index of good conduct. Each and every Chinese citizen would henceforth bear this index, in perpetuity.

As laid out in the proposal, the system’s stated purpose was to ride herd on corrupt government officials, penalize the manufacture of counterfeit consumer products, and prevent mislabeled or adulterated food and pharmaceuticals from reaching market. This framing connects the system to a long Confucian tradition of attempts to bolster public rectitude. The means was certainly novel, though, yoking together advanced machine-learning systems, online databases, municipal CCTV networks, and the pocket-sized sensor platforms known as smartphones. And so was the sprawling immodesty of the State Council’s actual ambition. Pushing far beyond the concerns for corruption, counterfeiting, and safety repeatedly invoked in its first few pages, the document ends up defining an order of control previous dynasties could only dream of. This truly would be a “system that covers all of society.”

The rest is here and it’s a fascinating read. A worrying one too. Having read enough dystopian sci-fi and studied urbanisation, a widespread system like the one The Atlantic talks about seems all too likely, especially as we seem to be happy to sleepwalk into such a state. We assume benevolence, we assume it’s only set up to catch the miscreants, and then we’re shocked to find that we are caught in its net too.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?