If you are familiar with the term “social credit system”, then odds are it is likely in regards to the many news articles that we read about China here in the US. More specifically, how China gauges the quality of its denizens through a digital points system that determines just how much one can do in their city.
This includes things such as taking out loans, gaining employment and even the ability to travel by plane. One particular example shared online shows a gentlemen with a relatively low score who is forced to travel by train as his flying privileges are revoked until he can work his way back up in the system.
His normal 3 hour travel time suddenly turns into a more serious 30 hour delay. And in order to get out of this trench, the individual has to increase their credit, which might come down to paying out of pocket much of the time.
Overall it’s not really an extreme example for sure but many were still outraged at the barbarity of the Chinese government and how it treats its people. Except that we do it too. But we don’t call it anything in particular.
If you get too many parking tickets, your license could be revoked and thus limiting your ability to commute in the city. Lifetime bans are real in this country, it’s just that we don’t often hear about them or really care too much. We also have a Credit Score system that runs much of our economy and our lives as well. If it’s too low, you might not be able to lease a vehicle or rent an apartment. Even employers are beginning to run credit checks on their potential employees before hiring them.
All to say that we do have a social credit system, but it’s broken. There’s no real way to measure any one person’s total points currently. We have a fractured system that relies on checks from 3rd parties that can easily be bypassed many times.
Whereas China has a very functional system in place, but an overly strict one that might harm more than help in the long term. So there has to be a sweet spot with this entire thing.
As a technologist, I think far too much about these things and how to implement better versions to improve societal life. But really, to improve my life. During my discourses with other developers, I repeatedly find myself coming back to social credit systems as a means to help us navigate through our growing cities and lives.
But only if it can be done well. And if we can keep any form of totalitarian government away from it long enough for it organically prosper on its own. One in which we own our data and overall determine whether we would like to participate in this game.
Here are a few real world use cases in which this type of system could benefit greatly, but again, only if done well.
Ease the burden of law enforcement
It’s not anything new that our current system of law enforcement is relatively broken and it has been for some time. There’s usually a lack of funding which results in a lack of training which stems from improper leadership at the very top. And to add to the problem, our cities have increased in size exponentially in the past few decades.
While Los Angeles was home to 3.49 million inhabitants in 1990, that number has skyrocketed to 12.5 million as of 2020. While 30 years may seem like a long time, that’s not enough people born to fill the shoes of the aging and retiring officer population. Which in the end means less cops and more people on the streets.
Therein lies the problem. Police currently have only a minute idea of who it is they are pulling over most of the time. And we now know that many violent altercations with police currently happen as a result of driving violations. They might have run a check on plates, which can inform an officer only about the car owner and not much else.
It’s odd that a stranger can tell more about you and your daily life through a photo sharing application than a police officer can about anyone they encounter.
Picture the scenario where before the officer even gets out of their car, the plates are linked to the driver which is linked to their online profile along with fundamental descriptors. Maybe your community thinks you are a hard-working parent of 3 and you volunteer at food banks on the weekends. Now an officer can calmly walk up to your vehicle and talk to you like a potential neighbor.
On that opposite end, if an officer sees that you have more violent tendencies and perhaps several people in your community have flagged you as maybe ‘unsafe’ and if a quick glance at your social media account shows questionable activity (as many people who commit crimes are doing these days), then at that point a more defensive stance might make more sense.
The thing is, while some may find this to be intrusive, we are already doing it and we are doing it for free on a daily basis. Your Twitter account can easily tell whether you are prone to anger or if you are a defensive person. The photos that you post online daily can paint a relatively good picture of your behaviors and your location.
Police departments around the nation currently monitor social media sites for signs of unrest or criminality. Typically, they use 3rd party analytics companies who can gather, filter and sort through this data for them. But it’s done without public knowledge or any form of consent. And therein lies a problem.
We don’t have any form of central governance yet for these type of things. It’s a financial game currently in which police budgets go to private 3rd party companies who then pay social media companies for API access and where we are non the wiser.
While we live in a city that resides in a state inside of a country, the truth is that the most impactful grouping is the neighborhood you live in. It’s the person across the street from you, or to your left or right, and the person who runs the donut shop around the corner that greets you on most mornings.
The only thing we lack currently is the group ethos. We lead isolated lives in a sea of millions. There are a few apps out currently that are helping to close that gap however. One that I personally use is the Nextdoor app, which once you are verified through the postal service, lets you join in on an online social media forum in which you can communicate with people in your neighborhood.
And while I don’t personally communicate through it, I subtly stalk the postings every so often. And some of the things that you can find there would bring a tear to your eye. Neighbors trading produce from their gardens or giving away items they no longer need. People finding lost pets and keeping them safe until the network effect kicks in and eventually the owner is reunited with their non-human companions. And even lost family members who sometimes become disoriented and lose their way from home have been found thanks to apps like these.
Fortunately this exists now. But unfortunately, this is not a built in mechanism in our cities just yet. And it isn’t perfect. Accounts aren’t really tied the person, but more so to an address. And these things change and change often, particularly in big cities like Los Angeles. And these are still private companies which means that they are still tied to a financial model in order for them to expand and succeed.
Just imagine an app where you can see the status of your community in real time. This can include things such as available places to move into, community gardens, communications with your neighbors and even some form of anonymous flagging for those stray from community guidelines.
Again, this is all public data right now in this moment. But it is fractured across the board. Home listings are scattered on newspapers and ad posting sites. Community events can be found by checking out the flyers are the local coffee shops, and there’s no mechanism yet to flag suspicious individuals, besides taking it upon ourselves to inform our neighbors.
Private companies are already doing it. We just need to get our governing bodies on board.
Whether you are steel worker, a coal miner, a lawyer or a judge, if you live in a city you are accountable to that cities laws and regulations. Which means that hopefully, you shouldn't have anything to hide. But in case you do, and it’s detrimental to the community, then it technically should be known.
This last point is where most people tend to have the most conflict. And I can definitely agree as to why. It’s the most intrusive into our personal lives and I tend to navigate it carefully along the thin line.
Should even our actions that go against the public and communities be publicly shared, specifically if they aren’t hurting anyone? In which case who is making these rules and regulations? And how do we deem what is hurtful or detrimental in this day and age where even throwing a family party can be considered illegal.
Should stealing from the local market flag us as criminals and prevent us from working within our communities potentially increasing the level of crime even more. That’s a tough one. Mainly because both yes and no have strong arguments tied to each depending on who you ask. In which case this becomes a battle of the classes.
My idea on this is that perhaps having this level of accountability can prevent certain people from committing future crimes. Maybe not all, but some. If you know you are being watched, you are less likely to misbehave. At least that’s the mentality. Whether accurate or not is difficult to determine.
Does it work? In a sense. During my high school days, crime was rampant in the inner city. Windows were broken daily on the campus and school equipment stolen constantly. Once the school board approved security cameras, the windows magically stopped getting broken.
But it’s a slippery slope as you can pretty much say the same thing for anything and everything and thus a 24-hour surveillance state becomes the norm. Which you can agree no one is yet ready to face.
So I leave this 3rd point open-ended for you to ponder and navigate through. Perhaps there is a balance somewhere in which we can all agree upon that gives us safer and better functioning cities for us to live and play in without completely having to give up on our freedoms as individuals.