A ten part series exploring the design of an invisible technology: money.
Our online reputation permeates throughout our digital world. With every website we visit, comment we leave, person we "friend", spammer we flag or badge we earn, we leave a trail of how well we can or can not be trusted. Though it may not seem like it, our reputation is becoming a valuable currency that is hard to earn and easy to lose.
In recent years, this reputational currency has manifested itself through the Silicon Valley backed sharing economy, also referred to as platform capitalism by some critics. Companies like Airbnb and Uber rely on trust, reputation and peer reviews in order for their marketplaces to self regulate. The way users are rated by others on the platform has a direct correlation to how much money they can make from their apartments, or how many people demand them as a driver. A five star review is fast becoming the next hundred-dollar bill, a new symbol of reputational wealth.
Since the dawn of credit (and debt), the reputation of a person has been used as a measure of their trustworthiness. This is an indicator to the creditor (usually a bank) of how likely a person is to pay back the debt they owe, usually plus interest. Credit scores are a calculation of a persons credit "worthiness". Your credit score can be a very important measurement in life. It can decide whether or not you can buy a house with a mortgage, it can be the difference between you getting a job or not and it can affect your ability to find your one true love. That's right, your credit score could hold you back from finding Mr or Mrs right. How? With a new Chinese system called the Sesame Credit.
By 2020, the Chinese government is planning to implement a countrywide “social credit” score, which will rate every citizen’s “trustworthiness”. So far the government is letting companies run pilot projects, the largest one being the Sesame Credit from the giant online retailer Alibaba. It is unknown how Sesame Credit ratings are calculated, but the system takes into account a person’s Internet usage and consumption behaviour: what they buy, where they buy it, if they reviewed it and if the transaction was positive or negative. For example, a person who buys lots of video games and spends ten hours a day playing them would be considered an idle citizen, whereas someone buying baby diapers would most likely be considered a parent and so be more responsible. Citizens are encouraged to be very public about their rating and it is starting to work. Some citizens are using the Sesame Credit score to promote themselves to partners. One online dating website displays people with good Sesame Credit scores above others.
This all sounds very Big Brother and somewhat terrifying: all your digital data is being collected and algorithms work out your societal worth. This system could control your entire life. If you have a low score, you might not be able to apply for certain jobs, you might loose your friends as their scores would be dragged down by your score, you might never be able to marry and have kids because nobody wants to be associated with you. This dystopic nightmare of state controlled everything is a very telling example of how a currency system can be designed for good or evil. It comes down to the mechanics of the system and some tried and tested gamification techniques.
Not all systems need to be designed in such a way. In fact, systems could be designed for a more utopian outcome. An outcome that might bring technology, biology and society together. What that looks like has yet to be fully realised. Currency, whether reputational or not, is simply a tool. It can be used as a force for good or a force for evil. It is in its design that we get to decide.
Read the whole Alternative Currencies, Alternative Realities series.