The long short leash

They heard of each other. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Chinese authorities have announced plans to create a national reputation index.  Under the scheme everyone will receive a virtue score based on observable behavior.  “The Chinese government has announced a new universal reputation score, tied to every person in the country’s nation ID number and based on such factors as political compliance, hobbies, shopping, and whether you play videogames.”


the program will be administered by Alibaba (China’s answer to Amazon) and Tencent (the country’s huge, government-compliant social network). Your score will be generated not only by your activities, but by the activities of the friends in your social graph — the people you identify as friends on social media. Your score will be decremented for doing things like mentioning Tienanmen Square or speculating on official corruption, or for participating in activities that the state wishes to “nudge” you away from, like playing video-games.

All scores are public to everyone, and high-scoring individuals will get privileges denied to their less fortunate peers, such as permits to visit (or live) in Singapore (you can’t make this shit up). …

Among the things that will hurt a citizen’s score are posting political opinions without prior permission, or posting information that the regime does not like … It will hurt your score not only if you do these things, but if any of your friends do them. Imagine the social pressure against disobedience or dissent that this will create. Anybody can check anyone else’s score online. Among other things, this lets people find out which of their friends may be hurting their scores.

There is already a similar Western system of shame and virtue rating.  It is called Political Correctness and uses boycotts, doxing and ridicule etc to punish those with low ratings, and reward high scorers with talk show interviews, book contracts and such.   How it works was illustrated by the experience of 9-year-old Dylan Harbin of California, who made headlines when Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read his letter saying Mr. Trump was his favorite president.  After than unspeakable crime the child could not find a baker to make him a birthday cake.


The media scrambled to verify the letter’s authenticity, and the next day, The Washington Post confirmed it was sent by 9-year-old Dylan Harbin of California.

The Post reported that, when Dylan asked for a “Donald Trump cake” for his birthday, his mother “made him one herself, because she couldn’t find a bakery willing and able to do it.”

The reason Dylan can’t have a birthday cake simple: too many negative points on his reputation index. It’s serious stuff. Forbes reported “at least 10 students accepted to Harvard have had their offers rescinded after administrators discovered offensive posts in a private, online Facebook messaging group, the Harvard Crimson reported Sunday. ”  Google fired an engineer who disagreed with its diversity policies.  Today you can lose your job, diploma or cake if you don’t have enough points.  That your reputation is in the custody of Facebook not Alibaba may be a distinction without a difference.

But such indexes can backfire. The points can become anti-points. Though the original the goal of reputation systems was to issue access tokens controlling entry into groups, they are double edged. Donald Trump proved that the negative of a negative was positive and used his media disapproval ratings as an access token to Red State voters.   There is nothing to prevent other candidates from doing the same or stopping groups from flipping the Chinese government reputation index by taking the inverse of the state metric.


A bad rep can be a good rep, depending on who’s looking.  The Google engineer may be hired because he was fired.  The ten students might find the rejection letter has opened doors.  It’s safe to predict Dylan will get a cake.

Rather than a sign of strength, the Chinese reputational index may in fact by a last ditch attempt by central authority at controlling the societies that have been shattered. Henry Kissinger observed in a recent speech that the post-War world no longer has any unifying strategic principles.  It is as if there were no longer some central entity who can speak for all.   A chaos is breaking out. There may now be more Truths than the Narrative can reconcile, too many reputations for Alibaba to manage, too much Internet for Mackinder’s geopolitics to wowrk.  Moreover what Kissinger sees in the grand strategic sweep may be manifesting itself on the smaller, more personal scale.

I realized something important today. There is a friend of mine who is liberal, but I always chalked up as a sort of moderate lefty. We could talk about politics, and disagree on most everything, but drink beers and bullshit anyway. No rancor. We both acknowledged that we were trying to solve the same problems in different ways. Mostly, I could understand him, and he could understand me.

But now, I feel like I can’t reach him anymore. He’s drifted off too far. Oh, he mouths the same words as before. But they are empty. Like he doesn’t really believe them anymore. And I’ve come to realize it is the same for me.

We don’t live in the same country, the same culture. I like him still, but he is a foreigner to me, now. I may as well be talking to someone from Norway or France. His issues aren’t my issues, his world isn’t my world. We’ve nothing left in common. When I talk to him, it’s just going through the motions, now. I see on his wall how much he hates Trump and thinks his supporters are racists and such. He won’t say as much to me, of course, but… it’s there. And we both know that.


Just how complicated the world is becoming was suggested by a Gallup poll taken in 2015 which showed “68 percent of Italians polled said they would NOT fight for their country … in Germany 62 percent … would not … In France, Iceland, Ireland, Spain, and Switzerland, more people would refuse to be part of a war than would agree. The same goes for Australia and Canada. In Japan only 10 percent would fight for their country.” How different would the answers be if Gallup asked the respondents if they would fight for their religion, ethnicity or ideology?  Or put another way, how would Alibaba or Facebook rate their reputations within these identity domains?

Can a world where few care enough to fight for their country still support vast state programs, PC ideologies and supranational institutions that are the basis of the Global World? Or are we on the verge grid governance, where loyalties, resources and connections appear only when they are needed? Ever since Brexit the breakdown of hierarchies and rise of peer-to-peer relations has been the unspoken question in every discussion about world order. The main issues in such a system will be resource and routing discovery; who to trust; and the incentives for cooperation. The elites have discovered that even the masses have individual reputations.  They have not yet discovered they cannot control reputational use.

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