Why is this interesting? - Tuesday, April 30

On China, credit, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

Noah here. Late last year a big story hit about China’s “social credit” system. Mike Pence called it “an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life” and headlines like this one floated around: “China has started ranking citizens with a creepy 'social credit' system — here's what you can do wrong, and the embarrassing, demeaning ways they can punish you”.

The only problem is that a lot of the story around “social credit” doesn’t seem to be entirely true. That’s not to say China is blameless or that there aren’t a lot of serious privacy invasions happening, but as far as most people can tell there’s not a single magical score floating around. Here’s Foreign Policy:

The scope, scale, diversity, and language of the evolving system have caused a lot of confusion, particularly with respect to the existence of a single social credit score. There is no such thing as a national “social credit score.” A few dozen towns and cities in China, as well as private companies running loyalty-type programs for their customers, do currently compute scores, primarily to determine rewards or access to various programs. That was the source of at least some of the confusion. Ant Financial’s Sesame Credit program, for instance, which gives rewards on various platforms and easier access to credit, was often cited as a precursor of a planned government program, despite being a private enterprise.

Why is this interesting?

I was reminded of the debate listening to the latest Rationally Speaking podcast with Helen Toner, the director of strategy at Georgetown's Center for Security and Emerging Technology. She makes two points about China that are really interesting. The first one is specifically related to the “social credit” system that isn’t quite (it’s a podcast transcript, hence the “so’s”):

So, there's sort of two big things that are going on here. One is that China doesn't really have any kind of existing credit score system. Just straight up, how creditworthy is this person? Should we give them a loan?

So, there are now several commercial efforts to try and figure out ways of doing that, some of which do involve some pretty sketchy information. So, there's an app that Kai-Fu Lee, this Taiwanese-American venture capitalist, talks about, which you download onto your phone and you apply for a loan. It looks at all kinds of, basically all the data it can get from your phone including how much battery you have left, what model of phone you have and things like this, which seems like they shouldn't … Maybe that's a little bit concerning as a way of determining if you should get a loan. But so, that's sort of the commercial side. So, that sometimes does involve having a numerical score, but that's not really that much different from the US credit score system, right?

The more you dig, the more similar it sounds to the way we run credit here in the United States, which, of course, is a (very) far from perfect system. In fact, in the eyes of many Chinese, Toner suggests a state solution is preferable to the sort of private system we have here in the US:

Actually, an interesting comparison between China and the US seems to be that US or American citizens are very concerned about their privacy from the government, but are much more willing for companies to have access to their data, if it means they can get better products or whatever. Whereas Chinese citizens are much more concerned about whether companies can access their data, and are much happier with the government sort of having access.

In the end, one big part of this story is obviously about the opacity around many things related to China (the podcast has a good bit on how little you should trust Chinese GDP data). But there’s also another connection here that comes back to a favorite idea of mine: the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. Coined by author Michael Crichton in honor of physicist Murray Gell-Mann, it refers to our ability to look skeptically at an article covering an area we know a lot about while in the next moment we believe every word of an article covering an area in which we don’t have expertise. A lot of this conversation about social credit feels like it falls squarely in amnesia territory. (NRB)

Photo of the Day:

From qualifying at this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The “castle corner” is turn 8 at the track in Baku. It’s a super narrow left followed by an immediate right with a castle tower looming overhead. Running it optimally requires coming as close to the wall as possible on the left to try and maintain a straight line. Two drivers, Williams’ Robert Kubica and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc (the angry guy walking away from his car in the photo below), failed to run it properly in qualifying and found themselves in the barrier Saturday (both escaped with only massively damaged cars and bruised egos). Photo by Clive Mason. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)