How search engines and big data are used to control you – Part 1: China

We’ll start with the predicament: it may be already too late for us. Google and the social networks have practically already won. Humans are just too predictable, our minds too easily hijacked.

Reward systems were evolved to help us survive. Succeed on a hunt, and you know you and your tribe will get to live for a few more days. The sensation you get at the completion of the task is as exhilarating as a drug rush, enough to get you back in the game – not just because you need to survive, but because it is pleasurable, all thanks to a little neurotransmitter called dopamine. No one could’ve predicted these very reward systems would be our greatest Achilles heel in the face of technology.

The good news? Well the good news is that our self awareness is still relatively free and is yet to be hijacked by machines. This means being aware of the situation is a step in the right direction.

Discussions of dystopian social engineering often funnel into two common scenarios – either it’s Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World template or George Orwell’s 1984 bleak-future one. Doomsayer hobbyists love to drop 1984 terms into many contexts, and this will be a real treat for some of them.

“Well, my children,” said Murphy, the god of ironic entropy, “why not have both?”

Big Data is basically all the various user data collected about us, which are then analyzed to reveal behavior patterns and construct intricate user profiles. On the surface it’s done for the purpose of marketing (targeting ads) and studying human behavior, but what it accomplishes is far deeper than that. Data is collected from so many sources that it is meaningless to name them all, but here are the main ones: search engines (Google is the best at it, as you are about to see), social networks, mobile phones, browsers, desktop devices, and the latest addition – just about any device that can connect to the internet – The Internet of Things. So, soon it’ll be easier to name what isn’t collecting some sort of data to be sent for analysis somewhere.

Big Data, as useful as it is, is also used to control us. It has probably been the goal from the get go, but now we are in too deep and too dependent to retreat. It’s a classic honey trap that we’ve been slowly lured into.

Big Data is collected from us freely and effortlessly by our own volition – it is given by us willingly by agreeing to the holy terms of the service scroll, and in return we get instant gratification and technological comfort. China and the Big 5 of the West (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) are the key players here, all approaching this from different angles, but the end result is probably the same.

China‘s Way – 1984

China’s Social Credit System has been gaining journalistic popularity in the West in the last few years as more and more news outlets reported on it and attempted to understand it.

How it works: the Big Data that China collects on all their 1.4+ billion citizens is compiled into advanced citizen profiles, which already include a mass of data previously collected via traditional medical and government records. Each profile is then assigned a ‘loyalty score’ out of a possible 800 points. If you are a Chinese citizen, every action that you make in your daily life will influence this score. Actions that are frowned upon by the party (such as buying too much liquor, criticizing the party, and getting speeding tickets) will lower your score, while actions that are seen as positive (such as starting a family, shaming those that oppose the party on social networks, or going to the gym and working out) will increase it. This score is not just a badge of honor, it actually holds real-life influence. The citizens with the highest scores will get privileges such as VIP treatment at hotels and airports, cheap loans, more freedom to move within and outside China, and a fast track to the best schools and job positions. Those with a poor score can suffer sanctions such as being banned from traveling, barred from getting credit, and limited job opportunities. In fact, some individuals “marked” as problematic are already facing these consequences: about 10 million people have already endured sanctions in the trial areas of social credit.

Since everything in China is essentially government controlled (even Google is playing by their rules for a chunk of the cake), every bit of user data from all sources is funneled into one giant data bank controlled by central government agencies assigned to the Social Credit project. High-tech surveillance systems are all connected to a single IOT network and are powered by advanced facial and body language recognizing algorithms that leave no dark corner. Everyone is online all the time, whether they like it or not.

And being online and gaming is not a new concept to Chinese, who are very fond of both. China has a serious gaming addiction problem. So much so that they have pioneered military-esque rehab boot camps to force people to quit their video game addiction. More Chinese play online games than the entire population of the US – 386 million (a figure from 2015, meaning it has increased considerably since). And gaming addiction is said to have inflicted as many as 24 million Chinese. China has had enough of the West addicting them to stuff. To some, World of Warcraft was just another form of the same opium that was forced on them by the British in the 19th century, leading to revolts and the opium wars. And gaming addiction is even nicknamed “digital heroin”. They quickly realized that instead of having their game-loving population engage their brains’ reward systems on Blizzard, why not use the same approach to benefit the regime? Why not gamify being a model citizen. Come 2020, when the system is said to become fully operational, being a Chinese citizen will be the world’s largest social engineering experiment and also the MMORPG with the most players, playing all the time, without the ability to quit.

And here is the best part: the social score is visible by all. Not only that, but if you have a low score, you will also negatively influence your friends’ and family’s social scores. Likewise, if you have a good score, associating with a poorly scored player will lower yours.

Either you will be a model gamer or a sub-par dissident. This can be taken to many dark corners – lower your score too much, and you might become too miserable to survive. Your friends and family will disown you. Had enough and want to help your family and loved ones raise their score? Perhaps a righteous, repentant suicide will raise their score. You will be removed as an unwanted obstacle and become a possible reluctant organ donor to those model gamers that deserve it.

Theoretically, at least on the surface, it shouldn’t be as bleak as 1984. The gift wrap here is attached with a very friendly looking greeting card which says that ‘what is within is meant to provide comfort and a high-quality life, as long as you conform and be a part of a greater good.’ What will be unwrapped in a few years, and how it will be ultimately used, is anyone’s guess.

It might all seem very strange through western eyes. How do the people put up with it? Is there no revolt other than the oppressed outliers? This is where the cultural differences come into play. Bluntly speaking, the principle of privacy doesn’t hold the same value as in the West. The Chinese culture has always promoted safety, stability and the good of the whole vs. individual rights.

Chinese gamers, practicing oneness, ignoring silly western criticism

All major schools of thought in China have that in common – the individual is just not seen as something separate from the whole, and in some schools of thought, the self is even seen as nothing more than an illusion. Confucianism, Maoism, Chinese Buddhism and Daoism all share one common thread: society and the people that it is made of are all part of greater cosmic oneness. There is value in duty and loyalty, and an agreement exists that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (very generally speaking, of course, since there are many nuances among scholars and philosophers of Chinese thought).

We also need to understand that China has been under some sort of uniform rule most of its history, either under an emperor or a single, all-powerful political party. Any modern attempts at protest were quickly handled by summoning tanks. The Party was having none of that Democracy nonsense, and they made it very clear.

Although China has had its fair share of inner wars, it is a culture that has existed more than 5,000 years in relatively homogenous social form. And it is this consistency which allows it to implement the system almost seamlessly.

As Confucius would say “What the hell is an internet?”

Naturally, this move faced a lot of controversy and harsh criticism in the West (and even among free-thinking intellectuals in China itself). People see the dystopian flavors here quite easily because it’s coming from a different culture and an open totalitarian regime that makes no excuses. But, what many in the West are missing is what’s happening right under our noses. Somehow, we’ve been lured into a spider’s world-wide web, and instead of realizing it, we are only getting cozy.

So what, exactly, is the story in the west? To be continued in part 2.

There’s a lot to be said about this subject, and we’re sure you have your own views and opinions, so please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below. Also, you can spread awareness of this important topic by sharing this article on social media.

This one is part of a special series of topics about the bigger picture of search engines and the Internet—some extra value you won’t find in your typical rank-tracking blog. You can click the Extra Value tag to see all the articles in the series.

Next week’s article is the second part and will conclude this subject. So subscribe to our blog and stay tuned for part 2, and get updated when stories like these and more are published.

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