If I sometimes have doubts about the basic effectiveness of subversive science fiction, this might be why. China has introduced a social credit system. The story has received a lot of coverage and a lot of that coverage has compared it to the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”, which is about a woman, Lacie, with a falling social credit score in a perfectly pastel Instagramable world.
My doubts about the subversive power of science fiction in relation to this probably isn’t the obvious one. That Black Mirror tried to warn us about this situation and we, heedless fools, totally ignored its warnings and entered THE FORBIDDEN ZONE. MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON OUR SOULS! Instead, my doubts are based in the reading of that episode and its application to this news story. It seems like the worst type of science fiction reading. Not only does it embrace the ridiculous aesthetic criteria of technological prediction in judging science fiction, it’s also just so fucking boring and literal.
Quite possibly a science fiction story about social credit scores is literally about social credit scores. Considering how bad the third season of Black Mirror was,* I wouldn’t put that sort of vulgarity past it. But, if science fiction is worth a damn, it’s about the present just as much as it’s about the future. While it warns us about the future, it also uses the future to look sideways at the present and to tell us about what already exists. By making the present exotic, it hopes to reveal the imponderabilia of everyday life.
So, let’s be charitable and assume that’s what this episode of Black Mirror was doing. (The show has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt here.) What we then have is a world and a life determined by a score, a quantified amount, that determines a person’s access to goods, services and social life. This acts as a normalizer and rewards certain behaviors while punishing others. The score is collected and relayed through a phone.
If you find this chilling, just wait until you hear about another system of social credit. One that is assigned to you by your boss. Or inherited. One that can destroy lives. Without it, you will not be able to access medical care, buy food or get on a train. This social credit system rewards the predatory and punishes the charitable. It rebuilds the world to increase its manufacture. It depends on exploiting the labor of other people. Those with higher scores earn certain privileges, while those who fall below can find themselves paying extra fines and facing penalties. And if you’re connected to people with higher scores, that helps boast yours, and likewise. Without a high enough score, you could be banned from most forms of travel, luxury hotels and find yourself ineligible for large bank loans. A low scorer won’t be considered for public office, can lose access to social security and welfare, will be more thoroughly frisked by security forces, won’t get a bed in overnight trains and their kids will be barred from more expensive private schools, Not surprisingly, people spend their whole life in the pursuit of a higher score. The score is everything. You need a high score. Better get cracking.
That social credit system has a name. Money.
Money does all the things that the social credit in “Nosedive” does. It’s gained through socially approved behaviors and good connections, lost through disobedience, creates the look and social nature of the world we inhabit and losing your income results in the same loss of prestige and power that Lacie experiences. When I want to check my real social credit score on my phone, I don’t look at Instagram, I look at my bank balance.
What I think this episode is saying, is that money is pretty goddamn poisonous. Insofar as social networks are poisonous, they are poisonous to the degree they resemble money. And a lot of them are designed to do just that. They’re sort of third rate knock-offs of wealth but they have the same economic logic. It’s just late capitalism, baby. Images are money. Money is images. They’ve both broken free from humans and established their own logic, built their own world, and we just live in it, bending to their whims, not even getting paid for our trouble because, God knows, we’d hate to see a reduction our betters’ profits. Might mean less crumbs fall from the table. And we need those crumbs.
“Nosedive” says what it has to say about as well as it can be said and to a larger audience than most science fiction ever gets. So far so good. But I begin to have doubts about the actual subversive power of science fiction when I see the reaction to this story. It was well executed and widely watched and yet, it somehow didn’t make people look in the mirror. Instead, people took the most literal reading of it -social credit is social credit- and moved the exotic future location not into their everyday present so that they could better understand the banality around them but into another country, where it retains its exotic flavor and demands nothing of us except . . . What? Judgement? Tut-tutting? Misplaced horror at the alien and the strangeness of their ways?
I love science fiction. (Fantasy, not so much.) But both science fiction and fantasy can be remarkably awful and dangerous when they don’t invite us to examine ourselves and are instead used to judge another culture. A lot of racist balderdash lies that way. Things quickly become grotesque caricatures. Cultural differences are written as biological essences. In these cases, it doesn’t increase our understanding but obscures its possibility. It becomes part of a problem it should be seeking to address.
It’s one thing to see that process in science fiction that intends to be that way. It’s quite another to see this bad science fictional process play out in the media. Doubly disheartening is to see that these news stories are filtered through a story that’s pretty well done on a show whose leanings should be pretty well understood. (Though, it should be mentioned, the common reading of Black Mirror as an anti-tech dystopia is pretty shallow and moronic – the show is much more about human vulnerability, capitalism and power and the mediated relationships between these things than it is simply “phones but too much” and not every fucking science fiction thing that has a criticism or a warning is a dystopia.) Seeing these bad readings propagate in the media as bad science fiction writings pretending to be true, is a bit of a kick in the crotch.
I mean, Jesus, can science fiction just work the way it’s supposed to? Like, you can even put the fucking word MIRROR in the title of your show and people would still prefer not to see themselves or their here and now, but will use the mirror to reflect a beam of light onto others. Maybe the form itself is broken. Maybe it’s the viewers. Could be the media. I don’t know. But something is broken here. There is a malfunction.
*I like Black Mirror, just not the third season.