Known by the anodyne name “social credit,” this system is designed to reach into every corner of existence both online and off. It monitors each individual’s consumer behavior, conduct on social networks, and real-world infractions like speeding tickets or quarrels with neighbors. Then it integrates them into a single, algorithmically determined “sincerity” score. Every Chinese citizen receives a literal, numeric index of their trustworthiness and virtue, and this index unlocks, well, everything. In principle, anyway, this one number will determine the opportunities citizens are offered, the freedoms they enjoy, and the privileges they are granted.
This end-to-end grid of social control is still in its prototype stages, but three things are already becoming clear: First, where it has actually been deployed, it has teeth. Second, it has profound implications for the texture of urban life. And finally, there’s nothing so distinctly Chinese about it that it couldn’t be rolled out anywhere else the right conditions obtain. The advent of social credit portends changes both dramatic and consequential for life in cities everywhere—including the one you might call home.
A dominant current of urbanist thought in the West sees order in cities as uncontrived—an emergent outcome of lower-level processes. Canny observers like Georg Simmel, Jane Jacobs, and Richard Sennett hold that virtually everything that makes big-city life what it is—and big-city people who they are—arises from the necessity of negotiating with the millions of others with whom city dwellers share their daily environments. In cities that are set up to afford this kind of interaction, people learn to practice what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “civil inattention.” They acknowledge the presence of others without making any particular claim on them. This creates the streetwise, broadly tolerant urban character of big, bustling cities from Istanbul to Berlin to Dakar, Senegal.
To hear Jacobs tell it, the city’s special heterogeneity actually keeps its communities safe, by guaranteeing that there are “eyes on the street” at all times—a critical mass of local residents, merchants, and passersby situated to observe the neighborhood’s comings and goings, and, if need be, deter the outbreak of abuse or hostility. Such organic surveillance only arises when a given locale supports a healthy mix of schedules, uses, and users, conjuring collective security out of the flux and churn of different kinds of people moving through the same space at the same time.
Admittedly, the 20th century did slowly erode the terms on which this insight was founded, as the medieval and modern incarnations of cities gave way to suburbs, sprawl, and automobiles. But Jacobs’s fundamental point still stands: Left largely to its own devices, a city forges a surprising degree of stability from its underlying diversity and complexity.