black mirror

This app has China living inside an episode of Black Mirror

“Nosedive,” an episode of dystopian Netflix series, Black Mirror, depicted a world where a social ranking system determined everything from the quality of people’s homes to how long it would take to hail a cab. Citizens would incessantly rate one another on a star system after each and every cursory interaction, effectually determining the person’s overall ranking: the perceived worth of the individual.

Now, thanks to a social classification feature of Alipay, the central mobile payment app in China, called Zhima Credit, Chinese citizens are living in an uncannily similar, and altogether Orwellian, social order. According to Mara Hvistendahl in her story for Wired Magazine, Zhima users are rated on a scale of 350 (bad) to 950 (good), with higher scores yielding hordes of benefits, including faster transportation, access to luxury hotels and apartments, and even opportune bank loans.

However, those with unfavorable scores suffer in silence. Hvistendahl reports on her own experience as a first-time user, with a primordial score of 550, causing her to fork over a 30 dollar deposit on a bike rental for a trip across town. The negative repercussions of the app are often insidious; while scores are not public, Hvistendahl says users often speculate as to which individuals are “better left unfriended,” as friends’ scores are a significant determinant in the system’s calculations.

In addition to nearly all the individual’s spending history, Alipay can access data from a user’s third-party apps, like Uber and Airbnb, which is all then configured into Zhima’s algorithm. So, the app then knows, for instance, if the user is keen on paying bills late, over-indulges in video games, or has spread a nasty rumor online, all of which negatively impact Zhima Credit, according to Hvistendahl. Egregiously low scores comprise a 6 million person blacklist the Chinese government uses to publicly weed out “dishonest” people, who for example, defaulted on court payments.

While the US currently lacks an app with this much collective profiling and authoritarian influence (hats off to democracy), we willingly and tirelessly surrender data to tech-giants and corporations like Apple and Facebook, while rating systems like that of Uber’s can delay or even deny a user access from services.



H/T: Wired Magazine

Photo Credit: The Atlantic


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