This installment of Building Sanctuary features digital identity and social credit scoring as it relates to purchasing and access to life opportunities for citizens living under authoritarian power structures. This is the fourth in a seven-part series that follows the digitally-quantified lives of sisters Cam and Li in a a near-future “Smart” City dystopia. If you wish to start reading from the beginning, follow this link to the introduction and Part One: Plugging In.
Part Two: A World Without (Much) Work
Part Three: Smart and Surveilled
Solutionists maintain control over society largely through the ledger. The ledger evolved from Blockchain, a technology first used to process digital-currency transactions like Bitcoin, Global Coin’s predecessor. But corporate and government interests saw it had far greater potential. It started out as a decentralized online system through which transactions of all sorts (purchases, education credentials, marriages, property transfers etc.) could be permanently recorded in blocks that were secured by elaborate cryptographic protocols. Over time, private blockchains came to dominate the system. These were gradually consolidated by those allied with the Solutionist agenda.
Now there is one ledger that keeps track of everything and everyone: inputs and outputs; ownership and debt; locations, activities, functions, and compliance. The ledger is the master accountant that is everywhere and nowhere. It lives on a distributed system of computers. It’s promoted as infallible, untouchable. The Solutionists suppress any information that might undermine public faith in it. In a world of uncertainty, the ledger is a held up as a symbol of unquestioning trust.
In addition to facilitating and recording transactions, the ledger also calculates citizen scores, something no one with a Citi Badge can escape. These scores rise and fall based the data each person generates within the Solutionists’ “smart systems.” People are constantly evaluated against the norms set by the authorities. If your behavior, or that of your family or even friends or acquaintances, deviates from these standards, your score drops.
People who question the system have low scores. People with extensive social networks have low scores. People who travel widely have low scores. People who access “the wrong” online materials have low scores. People who are financially unstable have low scores. Your score can be lowered for being too educated or not educated enough. People who use public services have low scores. If you have a low score, you become a target of social impact interventions, programs underwritten by private investors designed to bring your score up and reorient you to the values Solutionist society demands.
Citizen scores determine access to jobs, housing, leisure opportunities, and social relationships. They affect the prices people pay for goods and services and even the type of education and medical treatment they get. At birth Cam and Li, like everyone born outside a sanctuary zone, were assigned unique identity numbers linked to retinal scans and were each issued a Citi Badge. Their Citi Badges are connected to the ledger and hold funds from their Global Coin government stipend, student vouchers, and data currency transactions.
Both badges are tied to Talia’s, so the family’s citizen scores rise and fall together. When Talia or the girls make purchases in the real world or in a virtual world the cost is directly debited from their Global Coin balance after biometric authentication. This can be accomplished via facial recognition, retinal scan, thumbprint or heartbeat/ECG signature. Prices and fees paid are dynamic and influenced by their scores. Low score? You can expect to pay more for food, rent, and medical care. High score? You get across the board discounts and special perks like invitations to official receptions and preferential treatment when filing government paperwork.
The ledger asserted its influence slowly but insistently as people’s quantified lives were integrated into the data stream, and the real world melded with the virtual. At first, people eagerly adopted wearable technologies that augmented reality through data overlays. Phones, devices, headsets, and smart contact lenses created blended experiences that could be both innovative and disturbing. Today, wearables are no longer a novelty. People are expected to use them to manage their existence and document it through data. For instance there is now an understanding that everyone will regularly monitor their brain waves, heartbeats, sleep patterns, and other bodily functions. It calls to mind the antiquated practice of documenting oil changes and maintenance on one’s car to keep the warranty valid. Gaps in one’s health data profile could be grounds for being denied medical treatment.
As the economy was digitized, transportation and movement became increasingly circumscribed. No one has personal vehicles anymore, so unless you are walking or have a bicycle, you have to use DigiGo, the autonomous ride sharing system. The system requires you to have a Citi Badge. Access to different sectors of the city varies depending on your citizen score. Each sector has a digital border. Many opt to get implanted Citi Badge chips, which allow you to travel between sectors without manually checking in at each crossing. Citi Badge interfaces are cumbersome, and many of the newer operating systems no longer process device-based transactions.
People without chips spend a lot of time waiting; but Talia still wasn’t going down that path. The girls IoT pathways tattoos are as far as she is willing to go. They are, in theory, temporary and can be removed. She scrupulously limits the data shared about her family to the bare minimum. She kept their outdated devices, even though they are on their last legs and barely hold a charge. Whenever possible they walk, restricting their use of DigiGo to situations that absolutely demand it. They hope one day their budget will allow them to get their hands on a few refurbished bicycles. If you have a worthwhile barter, you can often find an off liner with one to trade. They are sensor free, and if outfitted properly allow flexible travel well beyond the authorized network of corridors used by self-driving vehicles.
The planet’s resources had been all but exhausted, and eventually oil and mineral mining yielded to data mining. Enormous energy demands created by the transition to Blockchain depleted the last of the petroleum reserves, forcing a rush into alternative energy infrastructure projects that could support the mining operations demanded by the ledger. Authorities had not planned ahead. Energy needs were so pressing that the systems being rolled out were not well tested, and installations often failed or created dangerous conditions for the installers and those who lived nearby.
In short order, bio-capitalist data-mining operations became nearly as profitable for investors as the extractive industries they had replaced. The automation of huge swaths of labor markets initially posed a serious problem for global capitalists. With a majority of people now jobless, what good were they to the economic system? Sure, they could still consume some products since Citi Badge provided a basic income, but how else could value be extracted? Consumption on a basic income would have to go down.
Alphadata, the world’s most powerful cloud-based computing company, had anticipated the answer. The company deftly maneuvered to a spot at the top of the extraction pyramid by providing “free” online services: communications, software, and data storage. Data would be the new oil, and the convenience the company prudently offered the world built a level of corporate wealth in data that was unsurpassed.
The complete privatization of public sector services combined with outcomes-based government contracting created a windfall for the data-mining industry. To expand these programs, success would have to conform to specific metrics that could only be cheaply aggregated via digital platforms. As global poverty rose, prospects for the data-mining sector seemed rosy indeed. Looking back, people realized how false the narrative of “free” services had been. They had given away their most valuable assets, their identity, without blinking an eye. Their online lives, their digital shadows, were now contained within the Alphadata cloud. It was a parallel universe of millions of digital lives pooled to fuel machine learning. It was these storehouses of data that powered the company’s research in artificial intelligence and led to innovations that put so many out of work.
People had been handing off their data to more companies than Alphadata, of course. All the social media platforms and e-commerce sites mined data, too. More and more people clamored for data control and ownership, which was eventually granted through digital sovereign identities stored in the ledger. Essentially, Citi Badges now serve this function. The datasets they hold are private, but people have the option of making them available for a price.
Progressive interests pitched digital identities as a way for people to monetize their data, perhaps enhance their meager Global Coin stipends. In the Global North, digital sovereign identity was ushered in through adoption of municipal identification programs associated with Smart City improvements, the precursor to Citi Badge. The technology had been beta-tested on the Global South and refugee populations years prior. Perpetual war and displacement created an ideal laboratory in which to refine these new technologies.
Data banks replaced blood banks. In a pinch, the poor could sell themselves to get by, while the rich could sit on their personal data treasure and maintain their anonymity. Even for those for who lived comfortably, data sharing was still a tricky matter. In the abstract you could attempt to keep your data from ending up on the ledger, but practically speaking no public services were accessible if you refused to participate in the biometric data system. Everything was tied to outcomes-based Pay for Success contracts, including public education. If you or your children wanted access to services, the price was entering the ledger’s data stream.
Talia hated to relinquish the family’s data, but found it necessary at times. For example when Li broke her arm in the maker space loose parts play area, Talia initiated a data currency transaction that released two years worth of the family’s purchase data to cover the unexpected medical costs. And Cam and Li’s educational data is, by default, part of the stream. The Solutionists have full access to it for the purposes of evaluating Cam and Li’s citizen scores and pay-for-success contracts with their education providers.
Talia hopes she never has to sell that to a third party; because she knows it could impact the girls’ ability to access income sharing agreements in the future. But many parents in her sector have to make hard choices to pay the rent. The Citi Badge stipend only goes so far each month, and selling educational data is a common way to make ends meet. Selling that data can lead to problems for children down the line. Data that implies academic or behavioral weaknesses can lead to students being excluded from learning opportunities; being denied opportunities to secure loans to cover tuition; being relegated to the lowest paying jobs. Nevertheless, people have to eat and keep a roof over their heads, and data currency transactions are the most common fallback they have.
The only way to leave the data stream is to go offline, which means disconnecting from the Global Coin economy entirely and losing access to all public service supports, housing, and employment. It also means finding ways to be fully human outside a digital platform, to relearn how to simply be with others without a buffer, without data, to embrace speech and touch and even the written word. People are understandably fearful of off-liners. Their rebellious insistence to exist, even in such dire conditions, outside the structured confines of Solutionist society, is a fact that has the potential to destabilize the whole enterprise.
Most try to ignore them, but a few harbor quiet hopes that a new non-digital economy might somehow, miraculously emerge from the lives they live. Such hope flickers in the hearts of a handful of hardy souls who hold fast to the possibility of a future built on trust in one another rather than trust in the ledger. Though she only admits it to herself, Talia is one who still thinks another world may be possible. How could she not? She has young children whose futures are yet unwritten. Falling into despair would hurt not only herself, but her entire family, too.
Blockchain Universal Basic Income: Link
Smartphone Augmented Reality: Link
Entrepreneurial Finance Lab Harvard: Link
MIT Digital Currency Lab: Link
Aadhar National Identity System India: Link
Aadhar Biometric Payments: Link
Biometric Bitcoin Wallet: Link
Heartbeat / ECG Biometrics: Link
Retinal Scan Payments: Link
Biometric Capitalism Talk Keith Breckinridge: Link
Black Mirror Episode Nosedive: Link
Cambridge Analytica: Link
Blockchain Technology of Trust / Goldman Sachs: Link
Blockchain Economy: Link
Blockchain Energy Consumption: Link
Lucyd AR Glasses: Link
AR Contact Lenses: Link
Transference VR Horror Game/Film Experience: Link
IoT Digital Health Monitoring: Link
Google’s Eric Schmidt Data is the New Oil: Link
Google AI Awakening: Link
Decode Digital Identity: Link
Blockchain Data Monetizing Platforms: Link