The Proliferation of Profilicity

By Paul J. D’AmbrosioJanuary 18, 2020

The Proliferation of Profilicity
CHINA IS AGGRESSIVELY IMPLEMENTING the largest surveillance system the world has ever seen. Millions of cameras set up on streets, in airports, train stations, and other public areas stand ready to capture images of anyone caught spitting, littering, jaywalking, cutting in line, or otherwise acting “uncivilized.” Advanced facial-recognition technology allows culprits to be identified immediately. The punishments for these infractions are not direct. No one is asked to pay a fine for a spit or serve time in prison for dropping a cigarette butt. Instead, offenders lose “credit” — social credit, that is.

The Chinese Social Credit System is a ranking technique: each citizen is given a score based on their behavior. Or, as Wikipedia describes it, “a national reputation system […] a form of mass surveillance which uses big data analysis technology.” Those who have low social credit scores can be denied high-speed train or air travel, and their children can be excluded from certain schools. The system takes more private affairs into account as well; personal debts and child support are factored in, alongside time spent playing video games and shopping habits. As a consequence of all this, the very consciousness of individuals is expected to change. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) states their goal clearly: to “strengthen the construction of a culture of sincerity.”

A “culture of sincerity” can be brought into existence, as the CCP’s public document “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System” states, through “establishing and completing a social credit system, to commend sincerity and punish insincerity.” Indeed, the official vocabulary of the Chinese Social Credit System is drenched in the semantics of “sincerity.” The word chengxin (“sincerity”), already present in the fifth-century Book of Later Han, appears almost 150 times in the 12-page document, in contexts ranging from the economic and political, to the psychological and mundane. It records, for example, that the system should “strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and judicial credibility construction” as well as “ensure that sincerity and trustworthiness become conscious norms of action among all the people.”

China’s “culture of sincerity” is set in juxtaposition to the West’s “age of authenticity” — a term coined by Charles Taylor to describe the various forms of individualism rampant in Western societies. A culture of sincerity basically asks people to live up to social norms, be good citizens, as well as responsible workers and family members. “Filial piety” depicted as caring for parents, for example, is a major theme in Chinese PSAs. The West generally emphasizes a different set of values — all linked to being original, unique, and creative. People are not just, for example, runners, but they create themselves through running — or so Nike and Adidas would have us believe. Though similar, albeit less universalized systems demanding a “culture of sincerity” appear throughout the world (see Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction), China’s Social Credit System smacks as “chilling” to the Human Rights Watch. But even from a more traditional Chinese Confucian perspective, something is amiss.

Sincerity can never be fully subject to the carrot and stick. Institutionalized sincerity has been unsuccessfully attempted throughout Chinese history. One of the more notable failures came about during the Han dynasty. At the time, mourning practices (a representation of the fundamental Confucian virtue of “filial piety”) were subject to widespread scrutiny. Exemplars could earn themselves prestigious reputations and even lucrative government positions. But later critics noted that the system of rewarding and punishing ostensibly virtuous people resulted in a swath of hypocrites. Veritable “thieves of virtue” — Confucius’s term for those who touted themselves as filial mourners, while secretly engaging in the very behaviors they were supposedly abstaining from — ran rampant.

The Chinese Social Credit System, regardless of the semantics used by the CCP, cannot regulate sincerity, which requires a correspondence between internal virtue and outward behavior. Video cameras, debt records, and internet surveillance can only check a person’s actions. Their thoughts and feelings always remain unseen, unchecked, and ultimately unregulated. We could ask, then, from the perspective of traditional Confucianism, whether or not the Chinese Social Credit System is actually promoting “theft of virtue.”

A far less Orwellian social credit–reputation system is depicted in one episode of the hit series Black Mirror. Social credit in the world of “Nosedive” is largely based on scores received after face-to-face interactions and the number of “likes” accumulated from online postings. Set in the future, people can simply aim cell phones at one another and swipe over a point value to rate their interactions, while “liking” online postings in “Nosedive” works essentially the same as it does now.

The underlying social mechanisms depicted in “Nosedive” are already in place. The major difference is that social credit today is spread out over various platforms. Facebook and Twitter collect “likes” from our postings, online transactions are ranked by Amazon and eBay, while companies like Uber and Airbnb track ratings of face-to-face interactions. The “Nosedive” future is already well-seeded in diverse forms.

The internet is, of course, not to blame. Report cards have long kept track not only of students’ grades, but also their ability to play well with others. And adults have had credit ratings, criminal records, driving scores, health records, and even résumés to track certain aspects of social credit for decades. And before these formal catalogs the more nebulous institution of “reputation” played a similar function.

Crucially, these systems do not require or even expect “sincerity.” From performing one’s role as an Airbnb host to obeying traffic lights, inner commitment is not a significant element. Credit card debt, for example, asks only to be repaid, regardless of whether the person really wants to or not. Similarly, an Uber driver is supposed to act nice, whether or not they really are nice. Whether they “sincerely” want to drive you and your drunk friends home from the bar, is beside the point. It is on the basis of this outward behavior that they are scored, and this is how it should be. Imagine if we tried to rate our Uber drivers and our Airbnb hosts on the basis of what we thought they really, “sincerely” felt.

In fact, the ratings we are expected to give are not even based on what we really think or feel, at least not in terms of our own preferences. Like a judge on a televised talent show, we are expected to rate someone according to what we think public opinion might be — what we might call “the general peer” would think. Reviews based on personal preference are not really reviews. I hate coffee, even the smell of it. But I can’t legitimately give a hotel a bad review just because they served me complementary coffee at breakfast. Today’s rating and ranking systems don’t just ignore sincerity, they presuppose its absence — which, however, is not to say they promote insincerity. The mantra is “tell me if you believe it meets established standards, not what you think.” Simply put, using rating and ranking systems is like following traffic laws: you don’t stop because you want to, but because you have to, and you have to because everyone expects that you will.

After all, we can only reasonably expect sincerity from those closest to us, and in a limited number of contexts. We want our family and friends to express themselves genuinely. But delivery persons, wait staff, and professors don’t need to share their true thoughts and feelings. Indeed, they might get on better without doing so. We all need occasional reprieves from the demand to be totally committed to our every action. Otherwise social life becomes too stressful, too nerve-racking, too serious. The Chainsmokers capture this sentiment in their song “Everybody Hates Me”: “Why do I still have to mean everything I ever said?”

Irrespective of its publicly stated purpose, the Chinese Social Credit System functions outside the sincerity model. It cannot and does not ask for inner commitment to standing in line any more than it cares for the jaywalker who escapes the camera. Citizens are given scores based on their (surveilled) public performances, not their inner personalities. Similarly, Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, or Uber — which are equally ill-suited for capturing our actual thoughts and feelings — do not track authenticity or display individualism. These platforms, like the Chinese Social Credit System, construct a profile based on outward behavior. It is according to this profile, crystallized in a social credit score, that are Chinese citizens being judged.

Ultimately, however, what is happening in the People’s Republic of China is only a more unified version of the West’s Facebooks, Twitters, Airbnbs, and Ubers. Chinese citizens are no more sincere in using crosswalks than Facebook users are authentic or individualistic in posts about their most recent meal. Offline and online, people around the world are increasingly operating according to profiles. What we might call “profilicity” — the new paradigm of identity (a way of understanding ourselves, others, and the world) that functions according to demands and on semantics that are only now being formed. Under the conditions of profilicity we increasingly think of ourselves, others, and the world in terms of being seen by the “general peer,” that is, how a generalized audience, like the voters on American Idol, might view things. Adjustments are thereby made to fit better into various “social feedback loops” — when people like our posts we try to post similar things in the future, and this influences who we are, and how we think about others.

Perhaps what seems so disconcerting about the Chinese Social Credit System is not its use of profiles, which exists within the structures we partake in every day, but a perceived overemphasis on them. Relying too heavily on “profilicity” can — like relying too heavily on sincerity, authenticity, or individualism — result in stresses and contradictions. The CCP’s “culture of sincerity” might be then more accurately termed a “culture of profilicity.”

China has thus embraced the next stage of modernity with even more fever than most Western countries. Advanced facial recognition technology plugged into every street corner and alleyway via millions of cameras is certainly unsettling to those who believe in “becoming who you really are” through Amazon purchases and Zumba workouts. But perhaps the most frightening thing about this is that we all know where it is going.


Paul J. D’Ambrosio is associate professor of Chinese Philosophy at East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai, China.


Banner image: "Minority Report — Straight Outta Shenzhen" by Steve Jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

LARB Contributor

Paul J. D’Ambrosio is a professor of Chinese philosophy at East China Normal University in Shanghai, China, where he also serves as dean of the Intercultural Center. He mainly writes on Daoism, medieval Chinese thought, contemporary profile-based identity formation, and the relationship between humans and AI/algorithms.


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