Big Data + Big Brother: when China moves to rate its citizens

Image by Kevin Hong for Wired – used under fair use. All copyrights belong to Wired / Kevin Hong.


My apologies for the long spell of incommunicado. My day job is as a Big Data researcher, and I’ve been working on a new novel; between the two, I haven’t really had much time to do any of the other things that I’m supposed to do, like writing emails and blogposts.

My boss from work recently shared an email titled ‘Numbercaste in the real world’, pointing to a new article by Wired. The article’s here:¬†

It describes China’s ‘Social Score’ – a rating for every single one of it’s billion+ citizens, taking into account their economics (credit) and their political alignment.

This is a bit of an I-told-you-so moment. This is precisely what Numbercaste is about: the creation of markets and states that crunch, score and make visible everything about the people, even what they deem most private.

I’m nowhere near as smug as to suggest that China is ripping off Numbercaste – this particular project was under way as a far back as 2010, and [I believe] it was the Beijing Times that compared this to the ‘good citizen’ cards handed out by Japanese troops to the Chinese during the invasion of Manchuria.

Is this the future?

My belief is that this is not just the future, but the present. Every day, we upload our thoughts, our locations, scenes from our life – sometimes the most intimate; we tag the people we hang out with, we explain how we’re feeling. That data is already ripe for crunching, and it is naive to believe that the likes of Facebook do not already use it.

We’ve all been in that situation where we search for something on Amazon or Google and then start seeing ads for it on Facebook. These are services that rely on tailoring their newsfeeds to our tastes and the likes and dislikes of people in our social circles. This is practically George Orwell’s wet dream.

As for economics, that’s practically old hat. Target’s marketing system was predicting pregnancies way back in 2012:

And as anyone who’s come across credit risk knows, the likes of Equifax and Experian crunch more data than we can ever imagine – not just spending and earning patterns, but even how that fits in the context of where you live.

This is the present. The only difference is, unlike China, we’re going about it in a more decentralized approach. Julius Common from Numbercaste builds the Number as something that hooks into every service a consume can access. China’s government forces participation from a top-down perspective.

This is actually an old dilemma: that of the state versus the anarchist. A state, or in this context, a company, must know about who it serves in order to serve them better. It follows that the more information a state has, the better it can serve its citizenry (or its citizenry made to serve it).

The anarchist, on the other hand – think V – refuses to participate in this process: refuses to share information: and such a person cannot expect to be served by a state, since it knows nothing about them.

The question is, where do we draw the line?

Food for thought.

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