On October 25, 2015, the BBC reported that the Chinese government was establishing a “social credit” system (called Sesame Credit) that would attempt to “rate” a citizen’s “trustworthiness.” While the system is not entirely operational, the groundwork is already being laid by using commercial companies as social Petri dishes:

Details on the inner workings of the system are vague, though it is clear that each citizen and Chinese organisation will be rated. A long list of people in certain professions will face particular scrutiny, including teachers, accountants, journalists and medical doctors. The special list even includes veterinarians and tour guides…

A national database will merge a wide variety of information on every citizen, assessing whether taxes and traffic tickets have been paid, whether academic degrees have been rightly earned and even, it seems, whether females have been instructed to take birth control.

Although such systems sound wonderful in theory, it is capabilities that matter, not intentions. Every system of oppression and control masks its power with talk about how it is keeping us secure and safe.

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Why is this system a threat to individualism and persona liberty? Because it steers everyone towards a stultifying conformity. If everyone’s value is dependent on how well they conform to what the establishment says is good, then innovation would slow to a halt. Very often, it is the outsider, the misfit, and the wayward genius who acts as the creative catalyst for positive change. This new surveillance and rating system cannot help but discourage innovative thinking and acting.

China has a long history of Confucian tradition, which arguably elevates obedience and social harmony over all other virtues. People were traditionally encouraged to obey the example of their ancestors, their parents, their local notables, and ultimately the emperor.

Some of this, of course, is a good thing: social stability must to some extent depend on a conservative continuity of tradition. But innovation matters as well; and when one is afraid to do anything for fear of social reprisal, innovation creeps to a halt.

An enervating stagnation sets in, and a blissful sense of one’s own superiority. Many volumes have been written to answer the question of why China stagnated and fell so far behind the West after producing so much innovation during the medieval period. The short answer, I believe, is to be found in a social system that valued conformity over creativity.

The stifling effect of conformity

Other societies have suffered from the same disease, and settled into a long period of stagnation. In the Islamic world, there was a time after the advent of the philosophers Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) when it seemed as if a real revolution in critical thinking might take place against theological orthodoxy. Scientists and scholars in Islam had produced a great deal of innovation and syncretic thought during the early centuries of Islam.

But it was not to last. In Islam, the theologians triumphed over the philosophers. In 1150 the caliph at Baghdad, Mustanjid, ordered the books of these great men to be burned; a similar order was issued in 1194 by the emir at Seville in Andalusian Spain.

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Averroes (Ibn Rushd)

Independent thought thereafter was strongly discouraged, and any criticism of theological orthodoxy became dangerous. The result was centuries of stagnation, from which the region has not yet fully emerged.

Are the “social ratings systems” in the West any better? They certainly exist, but are far more embedded and hidden. Social media, the workplace, and the entertainment industry have a silent agreement among themselves to enforce the doctrinal controls mandated from their corporate Mandarins.

Those who stray too far from the bounds of permissible thought are quickly educated on the dangers of independent thought. I was speaking to a friend this weekend who had taken his son to see the new “Star Wars” film. He was literally shocked at what he saw. “The entire film,” he told me “was about indoctrination into political correctness, cultural Marxism, and social engineering. They basically just remade the original film to put women and minorities in all the top roles.”

It was also telling, he continued, that nearly every reviewer had gushed at how great the movie was. “Of course,” I said. “They have to praise these movies. They know that if they don’t toe the party line, they’ll be out of a job.” He then went on to describe how he took his son to an child’s amusement place called Legoland, where entrants are required to pay a $20 entry fee for the privilege of being bombarded with corporate consumerist propaganda.

It all comes back to the surveillance state

The surveillance state exists for a definite purpose. It is there to ensure the compliance and docility of the citizenry. The job of the corporate “citizen” is to be a diligent and reliable consumer, and not to question anything outside the established orthodoxy. Those who perform this function will be hailed as heroes by the mob. Those who do not find out very quickly how much their input is appreciated in the public discourse.

The warnings are there for us to see, if only we have the courage to look. If we combine the power of modern technology with the insatiable need for those in power to enforce conformity, the result will be stagnation and decline. The modern surveillance state has aggregated to itself terrifying power; whether it will use this power responsibly is doubtful.

History suggests that the temptations of power and control will override abstract notions of personal freedom and liberty. The West’s traditions (especially in the United States) of freedom of thought provide some protections, but without the support of enlightened leaders, even these traditions can be tossed aside in the name of security and stability.

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Gene Hackman in “The Conversation” (1974)

This theme—the moral implications of the surveillance state–has been dealt with masterfully in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation. Gene Hackman plays a detached and repressed surveillance man who seeks nothing more out of life than anonymity. He is suspicious of emotion and emotional attachment.

But in a world of constant surveillance and voyeurism, anonymity is hard to come by, and even harder to maintain. This film was far ahead of its time in anticipating some of the key moral problems of our age: the inescapable presence of the government and large corporations, the sinister implications of cooperation with the system, and the growth of paranoia, whether real or unjustified.

The film’s conclusion seems to suggest that it is still possible for a society to preserve the privacy and freedom of its citizens, but only if it is willing to bear the high costs which must inevitably be paid by all of us.

It remains to be seen whether we, as citizens, are willing to bear such costs. The issue becomes, as H.G. Wells once said, a matter of “a race between education and catastrophe.”

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