A Dystopian TV Series or Society as We Know It?
China’s incoming ‘social credit’ system has caused quite the stir in the Western world. Set to be implemented in full by 2020, the controversial - and mandatory - scheme essentially entails ranking each of the country’s citizens based on their online behaviour and reputation. The rationale? To promote trust within Chinese society – a worthy cause indeed. Except the criteria according to which individuals will be assessed is largely invasive and alarmingly Orwellian. While precise algorithms have not yet been disclosed, the Chinese government is closely watching and drawing inspiration from a number of private firms who are already engaging in such ranking operations.
One such example is Sesame Credit, the financial wing of Alibaba which provides each of its 400 million users with a rating based on factors ranging in intrusiveness. Believed to be a key influencer of the government’s scheme, its users’ social credit scores are determined according to criteria such as their credit history, their online purchasing decisions and the relationships they choose to maintain. Promoting ‘positive energy’ online about the Chinese government is a quick-fire means to boost your score. This has led critics to logically speculate that, by the time the 2020 scheme is implemented, it will be impossible to promulgate negative thoughts online regarding the state without facing some serious rating repercussions.
According to the governmental document in question, 'Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020)’, the established ‘uniform social credit coding system’ will concern all ‘legal persons,’ a term which encompasses both individuals and companies. Naturally, the journalistic focus thus far has been on the effect of such a system on the integrity of the person. However, working for a company such as Mr.Frank - one whose very foundation rests on total creative freedom in both the production and output of our content - I couldn’t help but hypothesise: how would living under a strict governmental rating system affect our habitual creation of content?
Imagine working within a system where a factor determining your national ranking as a company was the extent to which you promote the state. The creative industry would surely never be the same again. You wouldn’t dare write a politically opposing article or produce an illuminating documentary. We’d all just be robots treading the same narrow path because, if we wandered off the beaten track into more controversial political territory, our rating would plummet and - given that our score is indicative of our trustworthiness as a company - we’d consequently lose business. This might seem like an elaborate dystopian tragedy, but it is soon to become a plausible scenario in China. And one that’s really quite chilling.
Living in a democracy means - thankfully - governmental interference of this magnitude remains but an inconceivable tale over here in the west. But democracy - power of the people - means that, whilst in a far more decentralised manner, we, as a company are being ranked and rated every single day with regard to our content creation in much the same way as we would be under a more tangible, state-governed system. Before we start smugly pointing our fingers eastward, then, perhaps it’s time that we take a good hard look at ourselves in the Black Mirror.
There are countless ways to rate and review companies these days. Glassdoor, for example, gives employees the opportunity to give feedback on their former or current workplace. Members of the public can have their day in court just the same by simply heading over to Facebook to score a business they’ve been involved with out of five. This rating system might not be mandatory and systematic, but it’s widening in scope and ever-growing in significance.
It might be distributed across various online platforms rather than distilled into one all-encompassing metric (as will be the case in China), but the Western world is already well on its way to having its own system of ‘social credit’ with regard to companies. And its potential repercussions on content creation are just as frightening. For example, there may well come a day where a production company stops short of releasing an investigative series critical of Trump in order to avoid a host of his supporters hurtling onto its Facebook page seeking revenge. These individuals are clearly nowhere near the target market of this production company - given that their political views diverge so dramatically - but the prospect of a low public rating could be the downfall of their business.
The severity of this situation will, of course, all depend on how widely recognised the scoring system is within the creative industry itself. We can only hope that agencies, film crew and so on will remain unfazed by the rating of a creative company when deciding whether or not to work with them, focusing instead on less soulless criteria such as professionalism and content output. But, in this competitive commercial climate, it seems only natural that an easy accessible ranking system would become somewhat of a yardstick in assessing the reputability of a company. And the more important it becomes to gain a higher public rating, the more we can expect production companies and others in the create industry to focus on appeasing the masses in their creation of content rather than staying true to themselves and their genuine target audiences.
I’m aware that this all sounds rather cynical. But, in a world where my Uber driver scoffs at me for having a sub-par rating of 4.2 stars, can you really blame me? Whether it’s part of a mandatory government scheme or a voluntary social culture, the rise of the rating is real. The capacity of such a scoring system to restrain the free and creative thought of both individuals and companies is incredibly daunting. At least from an industry perspective, it seems the only way we can avoid the influence of this rating culture is by simply not allowing it to matter. And by never forgetting the prospect of creative freedom that led us to the work we do in the first place.