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Image / Editorial

That Black Mirror Episode Where People Rate Each Other For Everything? It’s Already Happening, IRL

by Geraldine Carton
27th Jan 2018

We’ve all seen that horrifying episode of Black Mirror (Nosedive, ep.1 s3): people rating people for every possible action and interaction, which contributes to their social score and determines what jobs, housing, benefits they qualify for. It depicts a society where the number attached to you determines everything.

Well, it’s already happening. In China.

Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplash

Sesame credit (Zhima ) is derived from the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, where the magic words “open sesame” reveal a treasure cave. As they say, one man’s treasure is another man’s trash, and whilst the information stored on this program undoubtedly reveals a treasure-trove of information to the Chinese government, it also has the power to turn any individual into social trash.

Sesame Credit is embedded within Alibaba’s Alipay app, China’s “super app”, which the majority of Chinese people (young and old) use for virtually all transactions, including buying food, transferring money, booking holidays and ordering taxis. This one-for-all application is the embodiment of seamless convenience, but now it also plays the part of “village snitch” – reporting everything that it records (it records everything) and rating individuals accordingly.

Participating in China’s social credit system is still voluntary at the moment, but by 2020 it will be mandatory, and the data will be integrated with China’s governmental blacklist “The List of Dishonest People”. This is  clearly China’s attempt at a more discreet (more vigilant) form of authoritarianism.

So how does it all work? Sesame Credit’s algorithm considers every possible aspect of your day-to-day life and previous history. It’s not just about what you buy, whether you repay your bills or the education you have, what you post on social media and what social circles you interact in (yes, their credit affects your credit) also comes into play. Alibaba does not divulge the “complex algorithm” it uses to calculate the number, but they do reveal the five factors taken into account:

  • History: do they pay their bills on time
  • Fulfilment capacity: do they fulfil their contract obligations
  • Personal characteristics: verifying personal information such address and education
  • Interpersonal relationships: what a person’s choice of friends (both online and IRL) and their interactions says about them. A person’s own score will change according to what their online friends say and do, irrespective of their own involvement
  • Behaviour: according to Sesame’s Technology Director, Li Yingyun, someone who plays video games for ten hours a day “would be considered an idle person,” whilst a person buying nappies “is more likely to have a sense of responsibility”. What’s more, sharing “positive energy” online (affirmative messages about the government or how well the country’s economy is doing) will make your score go up.

And it’s not hard to guess how actions in the opposite direction will affect ratings…

Rewards and “special privileges” are already being dished out to those who can boast to having a high”trustworthy” rating on Sesame Credit, and the government is giving examples as to what kind of sanctions will be placed upon those with low scores come 2020 (this is probably only the beginning).

Bad credit rating:

  • The necessity for deposits for bike rentals etc.
  • Slower, more limited internet speeds and access
  • Restricted access to restaurants, nightclubs or golf courses
  • The removal of the right to travel freely abroad
  • Fewer social-security benefits
  • Restricted access to insurance and loans

Good credit rating:

  • Easier access to loans
  • A more prominent profile ion Baihe (dating app)
  • Potential to rent a car without leaving a deposit.
  • Faster check-in at hotels and use of the VIP check-in at Beijing Capital International Airport.
  • Can apply for Singapore travel without supporting documents such as an employee letter.
  • Fast-tracked application to a pan-European Schengen visa

Sesame Credit already offers tips to help individuals improve their ranking (which includes cautions about befriending someone with a low score). It’s only a matter of time before the profession of “score consultants” becomes a real thing (just like in Black Mirror), who the public could turn to for tips on how to gain points, or how to strategically improve their ranking or indeed how to get themselves off the government’s “untrustworthy” blacklist.

Mention any of the above to a friend or family member today and you can bet they’ll squirm and shudder in horror. But be warned, in a world where we’re increasingly rating everything from restaurants to taxi drivers and teachers, the thought of an all-inclusive rating system similar to China’s is not impossible down the line.



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