From the homicidal bitchin’
that does down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
Democracy is coming
to the U.S.A.
This post is inspired by Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, about how money is made of mass surveillance. I’m not overly impressed by the book, but there’s a section describing the Chinese Social Credit system which made me reflect on how we should determine — and how we actually determine — social status.
For the uninitiated, The Social Credit System is a “social score” that measures, in essence, how good a person you are (as determined by the Communist Party of China). It’s compiled automatically, without input or knowledge from the citizens themselves, on the basis of online behaviour: What you buy, who you communicate with, what topics you talk about. It’s enabled by mass surveillance, but the basic idea of keeping dossiers on social behaviour and using them for social control is much older than our current problems with online tracking. Think Stasi, the KGB, and all the stories of secret informants that came out of the Soviet era.
Essentially, it’s a government-run system of social status. Call it a class system (but don’t tell the Communist Party). By Western standards, it’s terrifying and Orwellian, and Zuboff’s description of the system is intended as a dystopia. She quotes the Economist to describe the systems social consequences:
People on the list can be prevented from buying aeroplane, bullet-train or first- or business-class rail tickets; selling, buying or building a house; or enrolling their children in expensive fee-paying schools. There are restrictions on offenders joining or being promoted in the party and army, and on receiving honours and titles.China invents the digital totalitarian state — Economist — December 17, 2016
She goes on to describe the benefits of having a high social credit score:
Those with high scores receive honours and rewards … They can rent a car without a deposit, receive favourable terms on loans and apartment rentals, receive fast-tracking for visa permits, enjoy being showcased on dating apps, and a host of other perks.Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p.390
Dystopian it may be, but it got me thinking: How do we distribute the rewards of high social status here in Canada? Who gets social privilege in our society?
The answer should surprise no one: Money. Money is our system of social credit. Only people with money can buy aeroplane tickets or houses, or send their kids to private schools. Perversely, having money will gets you better mortgage terms from the bank or determine whether you qualify for a mortgage at all! We idolize the rich and we act as though the ability to make money is the mark of superior person — the more money, the more superior the person. Not having money is worse — without money, we are deprived of any number of privileges and comforts, including basic human needs like food or shelter.
That got me thinking even more: Is determining social status though wealth really a better system than determining it through social behaviour? Don’t we want to reward the people who act in socially positive ways rather than just rewarding the rich? Does that make the Chinese system better than our own?
I’m not here to defend the Chinese system. I think it’s terrifying. I think most Westerners would prefer equality — a fair system would distribute housing and aeroplane tickets more or less equally, not according to social status. That’s the American dream: Freedom and equality. The ability to make it on your own, no matter who you are.
But I think that’s how we ended up using money to represent social status. We’ve persuaded ourselves that we’ve actually built an equal society, and in doing so we’ve made ourselves blind to the ways that social status is actually determined. We believe in our ideals more than the reality we live in. By saying we have no class system, we have ignored how social status is actually determined. Like it or not, humans are incredibly sensitive to social status, and even the most egalitarian, communal organizations quickly and inevitably create a pecking order. We cannot create a fair system by ignoring status. Somebody has to speak first; someone has to take the first bite. Social status is our way of figuring out who deserves those privileges.
So what are our options? How should we determine social status? What’s fair? I can think of lots of ways that have been tried. Money. Popularity. Age. Heredity. Beauty. Strength. Intelligence. The Chinese system, terrifying as it is, assigns privilege on the basis of moral quality.
On a practical level, we make status judgments on a person-to-person basis. We compare ourselves to each other, and decide for ourselves whether we are superior or inferior, and then modify our behaviour based on that judgment. There are dozens or hundreds of social cues that go into this judgment: All the factors I mentioned above and plenty more. The important thing though, is that it is our judgment. The terrifying thing about the Social Credit system is that the system’s judgment of our worth may not match our own. We may be forced into a status that does not match our self-image. Money is harder to argue with. We may not like the amount we have, but we know how much is there. I’m not sure that makes money a better measure of status, but it may explain why we are more comfortable with it. Or, perhaps we are just more familiar with it.
I’ve struggled to think of a fair way to determine status, and I’m not sure there is one. Our sense of status is given to us by the culture we live in, and it’s immensely difficult to try and change it. There’s nothing about our culture — or any other — that says status has to be fair. Our individual assessments of status may be self-determined, but there are any number of small social pressures that let us know when others disagree with our self-assessed status. If we “choose” a status that doesn’t match social expectations, we may fool a few people (and ourselves), but in the long run, we’ll inevitably come across as foolish or delusional (two very low status images) if we act too far outside our station.
I’m not sure how social status should work, and that bothers me. I started writing this piece because of an intuition that the ways we determine who deserves to be high status could be improved. At the end of the day, I don’t think wealth is a good way to distribute housing and aeroplane tickets, and the idea that they could be distributed on the basis of some higher ideal of social worth appeals to me. At the same time, the Chinese Social Credit System is too horrifying to contemplate. I doubt any centralized institution of social status could be fair or workable. But, if we don’t think consciously about how social status works, we will be at the mercy of those who do, whether they are Chinese software engineers or American capitalists.