The Digital Morality Machine

My opening provocation at the Battle of Ideas on whether Social Credit Systems are coming our way

The Digital Morality Machine

My opening provocation at the Battle of Ideas on whether Social Credit Systems are coming our way

Let's start with one distinction. Digital identity and social credit systems shouldn't be seen as the same thing. And you can have a digital identity without turning it into a social credit system.

A digital ID is a unique identifier that allows you access to digital services in a digital world. Over this decade more and more of our public services are going to be delivered by digital commercial enterprises. …to bank digitally, do age verification, put a digital signature on e-documents, to perhaps pay tax or receive welfare.  The Nordic countries and Estonia, all run successful digital ID systems with no social credit system. This is what I see as a transactional Digital Identity Machine. Generally, I don’t have a problem with it.

What I do have a problem with, is the Digital Morality Machine some of us want to build for society. And this is not transactional. It’s emotional, behavioral, and in all likelihood, global  - a point we can come back to later.

There’s nothing more emotional in this country than the NHS, so it is unsurprising that the whole idea of being a moral citizen and a good person -  is today proven through a vaccination passport, or covid credential  - because that is bound up with health service which is the weak spot for any social credit pathogen to attack. It’s what enabled Michael Gove to suggest if you’re unvaccinated you are selfish, and for the government to mandate vaccines for care home staff and frontline workers  - all regardless of whether you have natural immunity. This is not logical or transactional - it’s 100% moral and emotional.

It can happen because we have become so divided as a nation.

Online or offline, we are never very far from the insinuation that whilst we might be upstanding examples of high moral virtue ourselves, others can’t be trusted - to have the right opinion or vote the right way. If we can’t trust them, we need to control them. What we need, as the argument goes, is a system of control that will engineer social cohesion - a way to guarantee that all of us abide by the right moral behaviors - for the common good.  Untrusting of our peers, we’ll look to the State to tell us what is permissible or not. And just like that, with some help from global corporates as enforcers, we’ve got ourselves a Digital Morality Machine.

What’s interesting to me is how many people don’t seem to mind this. Research shows that 80% of Chinese citizens are in favor of their social credit systems, claiming it’s an essential form of social management and it improves the quality of life for all.

And when I’ve spoken to people in China about it, I get the impression it’s treated as something of a game.

I was told by one Chinese millennial: “Anyone in the system needs to play the game -  because if I don't play it and everyone else is playing it, I'm falling behind. So I've got to keep up with everyone else and just look at the advantage of benefits. But then the question is, how far does it go? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? And it's always that balancing and that rationalization.. But it's a moving target".

In China, it's game theory, much of the time. The Chinese people love to play mind games with each other. Some of the most popular games are about faking people and telling lies and seeing if people can guess your lies. (In Germany you play strategy games. In the UK and the USA, we play games of chance.  But in China, it’s mind games that are most appealing)

This whole idea about the game of it, I found revealing. Because you see in times of uncertainty, games are key.

The importance of a game is that the pattern of it gives relevance and structure to what’s happening around us. In the playing of the game, we are making sense of something that has not yet fully matured. Marshall McLuhan said that:

A game is a machine that can get into action only if the players consent to become puppets for a time. For individualist Western man, much of his adjustment to society has the character of personal surrender to the collective demands. Our games help both teach us this kind of adjustment and also provide a release from it”

And we are in uncertain times: a technological transformation, where digital has completely upended our societies, our industries, and our mentalities. Emerging new technology has delivered emerging new attitudes, and we’re not sure what to make of it. Customs and norms we used to rely on, and that everyone could agree on, have become dislodged, as digital media ushers in a networked, decentralized society. Also, the networked nature of the internet which is inherently communitarian, makes everything else it touches inherently communitarian too, thereby shifting the focus from the individual to the collective

Within this context, social credit systems are appealing because they act as a game. They are used to adjust us into the new world of the collective, whilst also providing a playful release from it.

McLuhan also said that the uncertainty of the outcomes of our games provides an excuse for rigorous rules.

We’re in a time of uncertain outcomes. And that uncertainty has been, and will continue to be, the excuse for more rigorous rules…Until we decide we don’t want to play this game anymore.


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