social credit

Ian Bogost (@ibogost) tweeted at 10:33 AM – 14 Feb 2018 :

Adam Greenfield (@agpublic) predicts that China’s Black-Mirror-like social-credit scheme, inspired by the West, could make its way back to the West. (



Known by the anodyne name “social credit,” this system is designed to reach into every corner of existence both online and off. It monitors each individual’s consumer behavior, conduct on social networks, and real-world infractions like speeding tickets or quarrels with neighbors. Then it integrates them into a single, algorithmically determined “sincerity” score. Every Chinese citizen receives a literal, numeric index of their trustworthiness and virtue, and this index unlocks, well, everything. In principle, anyway, this one number will determine the opportunities citizens are offered, the freedoms they enjoy, and the privileges they are granted.

The advent of social credit portends changes both dramatic and consequential for life in cities everywhere—including the one you might call home.

 dominant current of urbanist thought in the West sees order in cities as uncontrived—an emergent outcome of lower-level processes. Canny observers like Georg Simmel, Jane Jacobs, and Richard Sennett hold that virtually everything that makes big-city life what it is—and big-city people who they are—arises from the necessity of negotiating with the millions of others with whom city dwellers share their daily environments. In cities that are set up to afford this kind of interaction, people learn to practice what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “civil inattention.” They acknowledge the presence of others without making any particular claim on them.

To hear Jacobs tell it, the city’s special heterogeneity actually keeps its communities safe, by guaranteeing that there are “eyes on the street” at all times


Such organic surveillance only arises when a given locale supports a healthy mix of schedules, uses, and users, conjuring collective security out of the flux and churn of different kinds of people moving through the same space at the same time.

Jacobs’s fundamental point still stands: Left largely to its own devices, a city forges a surprising degree of stability from its underlying diversity and complexity.

As far as the ruling elites of Zhongnanhai are concerned, though, “sincerity construction,” or the process that results in stability and public rectitude, is something far too important to be left to the unplanned interactions of millions of city dwellers. From their point of view, orderliness is paramount, because orderliness makes for stability, and stability makes for continued economic growth.

dis order.. entropy.. antifragility.. et al

Seen in this light, order produced from below is not reliable enough to be trusted. It leaves too much room for chance. And worst of all, from the perspective of a party bent on perpetuating its control, it does nothing to prevent the possibility of contagious urban insurrection. Social credit offers a salve to all these concerns.

The social-credit system was based explicitly on a familiar, Western model: the credit score. As a de facto reputation index, your credit score strongly conditions where you can rent, what kind of jobs or educational opportunities you’ll be eligible for, even what mode of travel you use to get around. This one number—formulated by obscure means, by largely unaccountable organizations, then used as a gating mechanism by a profusion of third parties, mostly in secret—has become what it was never meant to be: a general proxy for trustworthiness.

trust ness

The state wants its citizens to believe that there’s little point in trying to evade detection

What emerges is a marriage of database and truncheon (a short, thick stick carried as a weapon by a police officer) —a vision of supple, gleaming technology at the surface of everyday life, working hand in hand with the oldest and most brutal forms of oppression, continuing their unbroken reign in the depths below.

 It’s not hard to see how such restrictions, applied broadly enough, would put an effective brake on nonconforming behaviors—or even the expression of nonconforming opinions.

voluntary compliance

China is an unabashedly authoritarian state equipped with everything it needs to cut dissent off at its source. It has the power to create a generation of compliant subjects both unaware of alternatives and utterly unable to formulate whatever grievances they might hold in a politically potent way.

If urbanists like Simmel, Jacobs, Sennett, and Goffman concluded that citizens’ ability to get along with one another in densely settled places is an emergent matter, social credit suggests just the opposite: Urban order, from outward harmony to inner sincerity, can (and should) be imposed from above.

What Tsai means is that Chinese society—and by extension, Chinese cities—will run more smoothly once citizens have internalized the idea of an ever-watchful state and learned to comport themselves accordingly. It’s hard to imagine a more concise illustration of social credit’s capacity to flatten and dull the ferment cities rely upon to create vitality, meaning, and value.

The freedoms that were once figured as a matter of “the right to the city” would become contingent on algorithmically determined certification of good conduct


credentials et al