2048 — I, Social Score
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but around 2015 the world began to lose its mind. Two thousand years earlier, the ancient Greeks had identified ethos, pathos and logos as the three elements of rhetoric and the art of persuasion. Ethos is the character and credibility of the speaker, pathos is the argument’s emotional appeal, and logos is its logical soundness. Within a decade of its arrival, social media robbed us of logos. Over-stimulation and instant gratification shortened our attention spans, and turned us into lazy thinkers who could no longer assess logical soundness. We could barely follow the simplest argument, let alone challenge it. The noise drowned out our reason: we just decided that if a statement felt right then it must be right. We were unable to read more than a few sentences before jumping to the next notification, mindlessly consuming 280 characters of seductive sound-bites, then confidently regurgitating the ‘facts’ we had been fed.
Media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were weaponised to spread lies, create confusion, and polarize us. Malicious superpowers created thousands of fake profiles that influenced millions of gullible followers, exploiting our vulnerabilities by pumping ‘fast-food content’ down our throats. Poisonous campaigns targeted the weak, manipulating them to disseminate fear and bigotry, enabling religious fanatics and power-hungry narcissists to rise to our highest political offices. “Take Back Control”. “Make America Great Again”. Many of us could not see past the rhetoric.
Unable to disnguish between fake news and real reporting, we lost our capacity for rational thought, and with it we lost our freedom and our humanity.
Around the same time, decision-making within companies began to pass from humans to machines, slashing costs and boosting revenues. Margins soared for the companies that were best able to deploy these technologies, and the financial markets gorged them on ever-cheaper capital. A handful of companies became dominant, vacuuming up consumers and talent. They became more powerful than the governments that were supposed to regulate them, and unprecedented levels of wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. As politicians squabbled over potential solutions, they lost our confidence, and we were seduced instead by the promises of the ‘big business personalities’.
A generation of idealistic entrepreneurs emerged, determined to solve the biggest threats to our planet: climate-change, overpopulation, antimicrobial resistance and pollution. They shunned traditional funding models, turning instead to token offerings. But the onerous regulations imposed upon them by financial regulators stopped them competing with their venture-backed counterparts. Instead of creating companies of genuine value and purpose, it was “growth, growth, growth” that was celebrated — unsustainably.
During the 2020s, several tech billionaires responded by seeking election to political positions. I am sure their intentions were originally good — or at least not evil — but they could not resist the endemic corruption of the environment they moved into. Investors demanded their returns, and the CEOs bent to their will. Facebook could have been a platform for connecting the world, but instead they hired an army of our smartest people whose only purpose was to keep us all addicted to the blue and white screen. The more we scrolled and the more ads we clicked, the richer the shareholders became. Children, in particular, stood no chance against the addictive regime, and we now know the damage it did to their developing brains.
There were sporadic attempts at resistance: protesters railed against the corporate behaviours that were corrupting our social fabric and threatening our ecosystem. The press called it ‘techlash’, because the exploitation of personal data was a major theme. But it was wider than that: there was a resurgence of Marxist and socialist thought, and new models such as decentralisation also started to emerge. The resistance didn’t get far; powerful elites suborned our institutions, and governments began to regulate the internet, and censor content. Smear campaigns discredited cryptocurrencies, and governments banned the use of revolutionary blockchain technologies that could have democratised data, redistributed power, and unlocked a multitude of decentralised funding models.
A critical development came when our technocratic leaders followed the example of China’s Social Credit system. By 2029, Social Scoring had been introduced across most of the Western world. We were sold the argument that if we surrendered our data to intelligent systems, they could make better decisions for our lives and countries. Vast machines trawled oceans of data to profile our personalities, health and intellectual abilities. Analysing our DNA, our habits and our social networks allowed governments to “deploy our resources to optimise our contributions to the economy”. ‘Smart cities’ became smarter, more stable and more productive as everyone followed the guidelines for increasing their Social Scores, which in turn unlocked opportunities, wealth and status.
Over 30 years ago the comedian Keith Jensen joked that “What Orwell failed to predict was that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody was watching.”. Today, no-one is laughing. With no compulsion from Big Brother, we offer up our inner thoughts for inspection and manipulation. Perhaps worse, we are also rushing towards Aldous Huxley’s vision in Brave New World, mutating our bodies, and genetically modifying our unborn children to improve our Social Scores.
Partly due to Social Scoring (often aptly referred to as the SS), productivity soared in the early 30s, and the spike in job creation and GDP prompted governments to pour even more funds into AI. But, as AI mastered more and more tasks, it eventually triggered a disastrous event, the so-called “Economic Singularity”. Predicted several decades earlier, this marked the point at which AI moved beyond the creation of rapid job churn to the point where it took over most new jobs before people could retrain for them. This was not the new Industrial Revolution that so many people had confidently predicted: it really was different this time because machines could now perform most revenue-generating tasks far better than humans. Governments were hopelessly prepared as unemployability provoked mass social unrest. Worse, it became clear that we were spiraling down into a global world war.
Governments introduced UBI (Universal Basic Income) schemes in an attempt to give everyone an equal opportunity to obtain a Social Score based on merit rather than privilege. But, as many economists predicted, this just inflated prices, further dividing the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’. Activists lobbied for a UBN (Universal Basic Needs) system, in which the state would provide basic healthcare, nutrition, and education for everyone. UBN, however, required decentralised and trustworthy technologies, as well as a “Community Needs Service”, which required that every member of society contributed at least two years of community labour to the UBN system. There was fierce political opposition to this idea from people who feared the loss of their privileged positions: they span it as a communist coup, and it was quickly rejected.
And so today we are reduced to pilfering points from each other in a social-civil war, and collectively ransacking other countries in a global-economic war. Humanity has been gamified and we are the cannon fodder on the front line. Those in power manipulate our behaviour by moving the joystick around to adjust the Social Score algorithm. They pacify the weak and deploy the strong to help our country “maintain its sovereignty”. We are so distracted fighting each other that we have lost the ability to see who our actual oppressors are. As with most autocratic regimes in history, virtual and physical walls are being erected to both trap us and divide us. AI enables monopolies to continue pillaging the countries that cannot compete. I try not to think about what it must be like to live in countries that cannot compete against us in this hideous game.
We are living inauthentic lives, deprived of everything that makes us human. We have become robots, as lifeless as the ones that replaced us, sacrificing ourselves to a war machine that protects the wealth and privileges of the god-like elite. Rumour has it that they have now developed medical technologies so advanced that they can even cheat death, and that they plan to colonise other planets because they know the one upon which we stand is environmentally doomed. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but so did Social Scoring and the abandonment of critical thought.
I feel helpless, yet partly responsible for letting this happen and not doing more to stop it. The future could have been wonderful, but it has been ruined by our own greed and stupidity. We could be living in a decentralised world, free to contribute towards a unified planet, rather than in bondage. We once celebrated our differences, and harnessed our diversity in order to contribute to the human experience in the most creative and wonderful ways. We once found meaning in our vocations, but AI took this away, and a new purpose was thrust upon us: to chase a score like foot-soldiers in a forlorn war.
Some people say that this technological drive has accelerated AI to the brink of superintelligence. I hope they are right: it is probably our only chance to fix this terrible mess. Others believe that we are living in a simulation created by a superintelligence, but I just cannot accept that advanced beings would deliberately create a universe that can contain this much pain.
I know this letter will be censored, but if it does somehow reach you, I hope you share it. Try to resist the anxiety you might feel about the negative impact it will have on your Social Score. Remember that if we are winning in this game then someone else is losing. We are more than our score.