Biological versus Social Engineering

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

The FCI previously explained how naturalisation practices increasingly focus on the Super Citizen: newcomers seemingly need to display certain characteristics and qualities that are not required of the original population. We have also seen that citizenship has different dimensions, one of them being republican citizenship with the corresponding idea of “civic virtue”; and that technology is turning humans into engineering projects, thereby raising the question what it means to be human in the 21st century. Looking at the phenomenon of the Social Credit System from this perspective, the search for “the perfect, virtuous and malleable citizen” through technology can be considered the “social” counterpart of the “biological” engineering project.

An online symposium on Verfassungsblog on the Social Credit System has taken the Chinese model that was announced in 2014 and should be established in 2020 as a point of departure, but the contributions in fact assess the concept of the Social Credit System in its own right – independently of the form it takes in China. Jeremy Daum is right that “technology is redefining citizenship, governance, privacy, and individuality in China and elsewhere” and most contributors to the symposisum are aware that depending on the region where such a system might be implemented, it will draw on Western political philosophy, Chinese Confucian political philosophy, or other traditions.

This awareness is strongest in the contribution by Alberto Romelo, who notes that no political or social actor acts “virtuously” in a void but people rather act according to a series of rules that have been defined within a certain tradition. Social Credit Systems in the West will thus necessarily look different than in China, Romelo argues, because the liberal tradition starts from a different premise than traditions that privilege, for historical reasons, social conventions rather than standing out from the mass. In that connection, Joshua Fairfield adds that it is doubtful whether Social Credit Systems can be discussed in the abstract, given that the development of these systems is highly country-specific. Thus, as machine learning algorithms cannot be divorced from the data they study, the Chinese ones “may benefit from more and more varied data than do Western versions”, which in turn will impact the underpinnings of Western society.

More generally, as noted in another contribution, comparative law has long been aware that “the law of countries of the East Asian legal family is markedly different from Western conceptions of law”. A post by Yongxi Chen usefully puts the Chinese Social Credit System in historical perspective by explaining the contrasting traditions of Confucianism and Legalism, which prioritise moral education and punishment, respectively, as ordering principles for society. Still, it’s important to be aware that Social Credit Systems, as an alternative form of regulation, are not driven by law but represent a shift away from law by relying on “a set of incentivisation mechanisms powered by market dynamics and social norms”, as noted by Primavera de Filippi. Jiahong Chen adds that regardless of the country and regulatory environment, any Social Credit System will face two primary challenges: “First, it is prone to unchecked expansion of scope by bureaucrats; second, it strengthens the bureaucratic propensity pre-existing in a society”.

Although Western countries have not implemented full-fledged Social Credit Systems, glimpses of such a system can be witnessed in Germany in the form of a universal credit rating system known as Schufa, or German private health insurers that offer better premiums if customers share data from their fitness regime. This trends raises serious concerns about privacy as the data and ratings are based on the surveillance of individual behaviour (see our post on algorithmic citizenship), with research recently showing that individuals are still very easy to track down even when their data have been anonymized. The contribution by Jelena Dzankic to the symposium stresses that “awareness of surveillance [among the public] is central to social credit systems, as it can curtail free will and individual liberty”, raising questions for the West whether social credit systems are compatible with democracy.

Wessel Reijers more specifically looks at the question whether Social Credit Systems will be “more akin to a digital republic or a digital dictatorship”, explaining that the idea of civic virtue invoked by Social Credit Systems “does not merely relate to being a good civil servant or being a good consumer, but to being a good citizen”. As Social Credit Systems will in principle encourage conformity, Reijers feels that the “virtous actions” as required under the system contradict the traditional Western notion of virtue developed by philosophers such as Aristotle and Hannah Arendt. “Virtue”, according to the Aristotelian reading, “is the disposition that aims at eudaimonia and does not entail aiming at anything external, such as money or reputation”. According to Arendt, whether a certain act is virtuous is dependent more on standing out by distinguishing oneself than by following known conventions. As technological developments are turning human beings into engineering projects, Reijers explains how Social Credit Systems are one facet of this trend, namely a particular form of social engineering that is different from other forms in the way citizens are instrumentalised and treated as a means towards a definite end.

Jens van ’t Klooster, however, feels that Western capitalist societies “make” citizens too and that “political philosophers have tended to apply quite modest moral standards to Western capitalist institutions”. He therefore claims that the market – which does not do very well anyway in giving individuals what they morally deserve – as a default solution is not obviously more just than a Social Credit System.

Social Credit Systems, finally, may have many unexpected implications. Mirjam Mueller points out that “as a SCS is sensitive to a wider range of actions and behaviours that merit reward [compared to the capitalist price mechanism], tasks that are distributed along gendered lines could be valued differently if they are rewarded in the social credit scheme”, having a positive effect on the appreciation of typical “feminine” tasks that previously went unnoticed in the absence of a Social Credit System.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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