We sit in a dimly lit room on the third story of a warehouse in Shanghai. We are surrounded by young Chinese clubbers wearing neon tops and choker necklaces. Outside it’s raining and in here we buy overpriced beer and settle on a couch as the repetitive beats of the DJ play to a swaying dancefloor. The scene is familiar: the fashion, the music, even the lighting is reminiscent of clubs in Melbourne, but something is strange, off.
My friend describes everything here as ‘so Black Mirror’. The fingerprints we have to scan for the Holiday Inn to check in are ‘so Black Mirror’. The security cameras in every building, on every street, ‘so Black Mirror’. The charging stations they have in bars so that your phone is never out of battery, the automated voice that plays at pedestrian crossings if you try and jaywalk, ‘so Black Mirror’.
In the club, we soon realise that what is so unsettling is the fact that 90 per cent of the people in the room are sitting there, silently, on their phones. Friends sit in rows of four, none of them speaking, wordlessly scrolling on their devices for ten, twenty minutes at a time. On the dance floor, a girl stands in the front row, editing a picture of herself on an app. We ask a guy sitting on his own what he’s been doing on his phone the whole time and he looks at us and shrugs. ‘Tinder,’ he says, and goes back to his phone. ‘This is so Black Mirror,’ my friend whispers, and I nod emphatically.
When China linked in to the World Wide Web in 1994, techno-optimists hypothesised that its rise would lead to the emergence of civil society and the spread of democracy in the authoritarian state. They predicted that the state would no longer be able to strictly control its citizens once they were connected to a global network. Now, twenty-five years later, China is the world’s top user of the internet, with 632 million internet users, 275 million micro bloggers, 527 million mobile users and a horde of Internet companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent and Sina. Yet the reality is far from what experts predicted.
Much of the online traffic in China operates through one giant app, WeChat, the primary mode of communication for Internet users. Quite simply, if you don’t have WeChat, you can’t be part of society. It isn’t optional like Facebook or Instagram − it’s a necessity.
Consider this: you arrange to meet some friends for dinner by messaging them on your personal WeChat group. You get to the train station where you use WeChat (which is linked to your credit card) to scan a QR code on a ticket machine and buy a train ticket. Once at the restaurant, you are seated at a table that has a barcode in its corner. You scan the barcode on the app and the restaurant’s menu comes up. You order your food, through WeChat, and then eventually pay, through WeChat. Before you leave, you go to the toilet and scan another QR code to dispense some toilet paper.
This may be highly time efficient and absurdly convenient, yet it quickly becomes terrifying when you realise the amount of information a single app holds about your day-to-day life. The app knows who you’re talking to. It knows where you are. It knows what you’re buying. It even knows when you’re going to the toilet. This is nothing new. Facebook, Instagram and Google also store huge amounts of data about everything we do and say online. Yet what is unprecedented is that this vast amount of information may soon to be an active part of a Social Credit System (SCS) measuring the ‘trustworthiness’ or value of everyday citizens.
Credit checks are not new. We are given ratings as Uber passengers and online shoppers. Yet China’s SCS may apply that principle to every facet of a person’s life − making value judgements on behaviour that will award or deduct points. If you donate to charity, your rating will go up. But if you pay your rent late, you may be denied the privilege of booking a flight or a train to go virtually anywhere. Local students in Shanghai confide to us that they sometimes have the feeling they are being watched. With the unveiling of the SCS, they tell us that now they know for certain.
Granted, the system hasn’t rolled out yet, so it’s difficult to hypothesise exactly how far-reaching it will be. Currently, state-run projects such as Sesame Credit have acted essentially like non-compulsory loyalty reward programs, where high scores are earned for good public deeds. What the SCS highlights more broadly, however, is the alarming power we hand over, often without thinking, to authority figures when we give up our data online. In China, abuse of user data is perhaps not overly surprising, given that their technology is so intrinsically (and openly) linked to the government and their agenda. But do we − as Australians − have any reason for concern?
People in China have certainly been reaping the benefits of their advanced technological systems, but don’t be fooled; they are sacrificing their data, and their freedom, to the state. An authoritarian state may seem more threatening than a bunch of young billionaires in Silicon Valley, but China’s Orwellian future should serve to remind us just how much power we are putting in the hands of our tech companies. If we’re not careful, we could soon be living a life that’s ‘so Black Mirror’ too.
Caitlin Cassidy is a freelance writer and Masters student in Global Media at the University of Melbourne. She works at Readings.