When your reputation is written in the stars
Welcome to the Reputation Economy, where people, services, and businesses are being constantly reviewed graded and judged.
The holiday went off well until I received a call from the hotel urging me to revise my rating on the booking site. I had been liberal and sprinkled the hospitality experience with four stars after I checked out of the room. The service was nice, the food was exceptional, but there were some niggles like a cramped room. We also had to climb five flights of stairs as the elevator was yet to be installed (it was an impressive villa that was converted into a hotel). "It's our reputation, sir, you promised to give us an excellent rating, which is a five. We won't be up there on the search list if we don't get a five," said the hotel executive's voice on the line. He sounded troubled, desperate. He was only following the boss's instructions and hence the call, he said apologetically. "I said I would think about it and disconnected the line but expected him to call back.
Welcome to the Reputation Economy, where people, services, and businesses are being constantly reviewed graded and judged. Judge not, for you will be judged, has little resonance here. We are constantly watching our backs as our behaviour is being reviewed - every service and business is written in the stars on a scale of one to five. The more the stars, the better the service, it is assumed. Businesses, in turn, are also rating their customers, handing out stars that will serve them well and lead to preferential treatment if they make a return visit. So an Uber or Careem driver could 'star' a passenger for life if he or she throws trash in the vehicle, speaks loudly on the phone or is boorish on the ride to their destinations. Such are the ways of the Reputation Economy that it can leave people stranded if they fail to rise up to expectations. This social value system is determined by a person's digital persona, which may be far from the truth as we leave behavioural conclusions to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and algorithms based on human reviews. We like to think we are wiser for it, but are not.
Simply put, this Reputation Economy is analysed by AI to bring order and digital respectability to society and business. Hence, better scores mean better treatment and access to facilities. Everything under the sun is reviewed, and our starry opinions enable algorithms to make or mar the individual's or company's prospects.
I now understand why the hotel owner was concerned about my 4/5 star review. He was a newbie in a very competitive business and was therefore in a rush to push up those positive reviews for his venture in a bid to lure more guests to his hotel. As expected, I received a call again from the same hotel executive who was keen that I revise my stars to a 5. "It can't be a 5/5, mate, it will look silly on your business and my intelligence," I told him curtly.
Conversation over, I looked up with growing concern on this reputation business, and realised that countries like China hope to expand it to a social credit system by 2020. The massive project was rolled out in 2014 and operates as a rewards-and-punishment model system of governance.
The higher the scores a citizen racks up online, the larger the social benefits, and a person's ranking can vary based on behaviour. "Keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful," according to a Chinese government document. So what could be termed bad behaviour? Dangerous driving, smoking in non-designated areas and spending too much time on the Net buying video games could damage scores. The social ranking system in China will become mandatory in 2020 and companies would also fall in the Net.
In the case of China, the Reputation Economy may have mutated into a Surveillance Economy, that is voyeuristic and vague about human values. There's a grey area between Reputation and Surveillance economies and it hinges on how far governments will go to make the transition happen. What's creepy about the Chinese social credit system is that there is a name-and-shame option. Human foibles and infractions could be exposed if social scores hit rock bottom. Being publicly shamed as a 'bad citizen', 'bad worker' or 'bad parent' is what we can expect as the Reputation Economy shifts gears in its attempt to find 'perfection' through surveillance. "By rating citizens on a range of behaviours from shopping habits to online speech, the government intends to manufacture a problem-free society," said Human Rights Watch on China's plans.
The new digital reality is so fragile that it cannot accept human confusion and frailties. When in doubt, it denies the human reality. This fetish for order leaves societies vulnerable. Brands and reputations have been built online and are now fertile grounds for experiments in mind-control as we gloss over flaws and develop 'perfect' communities. It may not be dystopian in nature, but can be freakishly fictional, a world we do not wish to believe in, yet inhabit, because we threw it all away to the weapons of mass instruction.