Indeed, it is not only the desire to move freely, but all the additional privileges that come with a higher score that make it so alluring: faster service, VIP access, no deposits on rentals and hotels – not to mention the admiration of friends and colleagues. Like so many other technological lures, systems that seem to objectively rank people on the basis of merit and things we like, such as trustworthiness, invoke “efficiency” and “progress” as the lingua franca of innovation. China’s policy states: “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”59 In fact, higher scores have become a new status symbol, even as low scorers are a digital underclass who may, we are told, have an opportunity to climb their way out of the algorithmic gutter.
Even the quality of people in one’s network can affect your score – a bizarre scenario that has found its way onto TV shows like Black Mirror and Community, where even the most fleeting interpersonal interactions produce individual star ratings, thumbs up and down, giving rise to digital elites and subordinates. As Zeynep Tufekci explains, the ubiquitous incitement to “like” content on Facebook is designed to accommodate the desires of marketers and works against the interests of protesters, who want to express dissent by “disliking” particular content.60 And, no matter how arbitrary or silly the credit (see “meow meow beenz” in the TV series Community), precisely because people and the state invest it with import, the system carries serious consequences for one’s quality of life, until finally the pursuit of status spins out of control.
The phenomenon of measuring individuals not only by their behavior but by their networks takes the concept of social capital to a whole new level. In her work on marketplace lenders, sociologist Tamara K. Nopper considers how these companies help produce and rely on what she calls digital character – a “profile assessed to make inferences regarding character in terms of credibility, reliability, industrious, responsibility, morality, and relationship choices.”61 Automated social credit systems make a broader principle of merit-based systems clear: scores assess a person’s ability to conform to established definitions of good behavior and valued sociality rather than measuring any intrinsic quality. More importantly, the ideological commitments of dominant groups typically determine what gets awarded credit in the first place, automating social reproduction. This implicates not only race and ethnicity; depending on the fault lines of a given society, merit systems also codify class, caste, sex, gender, religion, and disability oppression (among other factors). The point is that multiple axes of domination typically converge in a single code.