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Reputation part 2. Violence and Control.

In the dim and distant past, we had kings and queens and knights and stuff like that. Yes, I know we still do, but bear with me. People got to be kings in the first (second, third…) place because they were basically better at kicking heads than the other guy and eventually it sort of stuck because power begets power, and so on. No, I’ve never seen (or read) Game of Thrones. The end result was a very strictly controlled hierarchy all the way from God, who obviously anointed the king (or queen) with some kind of divine king-stick, through things like the clergy, who naturally were God’s appointed spokesmen (yes, men), knights, counts, dukes and all the rest, sheriffs (we’ll come back to them) and then things (because that’s how they were treated) like serfs. It’s a pretty neat arrangement if you’re not a serf, and if you got to be a sheriff for some reason it was nice because you got to be better than them. It’s actually remarkable how widespread this kind of arrangement used to be, from England to Japan and back again. Of course I’m simplifying. This is a blog post, not a world history lesson. The point is that the hierarchy was set up strictly to maintain power. Or if you like, to maintain control. If you were at the top, that’s where you wanted to stay. If you were at the bottom, perhaps you might just like to get a bit further up, but beware. Because… Right at the bottom is a bucket of crabs, and it suited those at the top to keep it that way because there were a lot more people at the bottom and if they ever got to figuring that out it might prove, well, bloody – ask the French. Today, we still have hierarchies and we still have crab buckets, they’re just less obvious most of the time. The amazing thing about social networks and their rating and tanking and reputation systems is that they do little more than perpetuate those buckets. It’s about control. Reputation systems, as we already kind of alluded to in a previous post, are control mechanisms. Much like the rather chilling ASBO in the UK, they are society’s way of letting people know that they aren’t quite, or even at all, welcome. That their behaviour isn’t acceptable. That they are in some way ‘wrong’, or ‘other.’ It’s entirely possible that these judgments are valid (all except from the ‘other’ one – that can never be justified). There are difficult people around and they do sometimes need to be reminded that there is something of a social contract. But it is also possible that these people are judged because they just don’t fit for some reason – perhaps mental illness, perhaps dress style, perhaps just accent. In Cook’s “Trust in Society”, Bacharach and Gambetta talked about ‘signs,’ which we use to determine things like the trustworthiness or skill of a person – suit and tie or mechanic’s overalls, for instance. But sometimes the signs are thrown back at people. A bad reputation score, or some other form of social control, is society’s signal that you aren’t considered trustworthy. And the problem with that, of course, is that society is actually pretty dodgy when it comes to judging people or things, especially at the edges. Crowds aren’t wise. More problematic is when we start using technology to enforce what society thinks might be (un)worthy in some way. This kind of tool can be quite cruel when put into the hands of people who aren’t responsible enough to wield it. Consider for example cyber-bullying, shaming, voting down someone you don’t like, spreading malicious ‘rumours’ (actually, they’re just lies, let’s be honest with our words). Platforms like social media amplify these issues so much that the unwitting victim of these attacks is both blindsided and unable to defend themselves since they are caught in a vicious circle of condemnation for whatever they might say. And before anyone gets on a high horse and declares that this is ‘just a youth problem,’ I’d counsel consideration of the dire direction taken by online conversations and associated judgments these days, the speed with which we are able to come to that judgment, the ways in which people are vilified for their political stance (or even their political service), the ways in which people are manipulated by algorithms. If I sound angry allow me to suggest that instead I am sad. It’s anger that got us into a lot of the mess we’re in, and anger magnified by algorithms is a nasty mess. Social control via insult and bullying on social media is one thing. Social control at a state level is almost certainly another (although the people stuck in the maelstrom of either may beg to differ). The social credit system in China, for example, is a natural extension of the reputation systems we all use with equanimity almost every day when we ‘like’ something (or the reverse), when we casually rank a restaurant badly because our main meal arrived a minute too late, when we share something we know to be false because it gets us clicks. All the social credit system does is to watch what people are doing and either reward them with more credit or punish them with less. Those with more can do more (like travel), those with less can’t do much (even put their children into a nicer school – like it was the children’s’ fault). It achieves this with the willing participation of members of society, happy to judge the actions of others in some way (remember those crabs?), but it systematizes it with the use of things like AI, facial recognition systems, massive data collection and more. It’s worth mentioning that of course if you have money you can buy credit – like having money was any indicator of, well, anything except having money. You can lose credit by doing things as simple as jaywalking. You can almost certainly lose a whole lot if you speak out against whatever is deemed sacrosanct in some way. Just ask Jack Ma. Here’s the thing: society has tremendous inertia. Changing its mind is very very difficult. But leveraging that inertia to judge and subsequently sanction those who somehow are seen as doing something ‘wrong’ is astoundingly easy. They’re just crabs. When you combine that with the wonderful technology and the amazing trust and reputation models we’ve spent so long lovingly thinking about, it is devastating. Sometimes you get to know how it felt for the scientists who took the early steps toward nuclear power (sure, to weapons). That’s a Pandora’s box and when it’s opened it’s far too late to put it all back. Are things like social credit or social control via algorithm as dangerous as nuclear weapons? It really just depends on which side of the social judgment you are. Control. Of course, the thing about Pandora’s box is that there’s still something left inside.

Many thanks to Peter Lewis for reading and sanity-checking, and for pointing out that reputation systems might well be, simply, violent. Which is a question to be answered more fully another day.
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